What’s so extreme about extreme sports?

There is a lot of PR puff behind the idea that new sports challenge our safety-first, shrink-wrapped world.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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According to the ads, extreme sports are an antidote to our safety-first, shrink-wrapped world. They offer the opportunity to carve your own path and find out where your limits lie.

There is a new extreme sport born almost every week, each seemingly more bizarre and dangerous than the last. BASE-jumping involves parachuting off buildings and cliffs; extreme ironing (inexplicably) involves ironing mid-skydive, up a mountain or under water. Hang-gliding and skydiving have spawned heli-bungee and sky-flying; skateboarding has spawned street luge, or lying on a skateboard and going fast downhill. Buildering is free climbing up skyscrapers, popularised by the Frenchman Alain ‘Spiderman’ Robert; free running treats the city as one big gymnastics circuit. Then there are events such as the Verbier Extreme, which challenges snowboarders to find the most daring way of descending a mountain.

Extreme sports – also known as lifestyle sports – have roots in 1960s countercultural movements, and have been growing since the late 1980s. Research by American Sports Data found that new-style sports such as snowboarding and paintballing have increased at the expense of traditional sports. Snowboarding was up by 30 per cent between 1998 and 2004 (7.1million people tried it at least once in 2004), while paintballing increased by 63 per cent in the same period (to 9.6million participants), and artificial wall climbing was up by 63 per cent (to 7.7million). By contrast, the number of baseball players fell by 28 per cent between 1987 and 2000, declining to 10.9million players (though most of these would be regular players, whereas most paintballers would be one-offs). Softball and volleyball fell by 37 per cent and 36 per cent in the same period (1).

Given the high-adrenaline image, it’s unsurprising that male 15- to 24-year-olds are the prime market. In the UK, Mintel found that 22.7 per cent of 11- to 19-year-olds participated in BMX/mountain biking and 27. 5 per cent did skateboarding (2). But these sports attract a wide variety of participants. BASE jumpers include thirty- and fortysomething solicitors and accountants; and the new free running training academy in east London attracts 80 people a session, including everybody from kids to the middle aged.

The myth of ‘extreme’ sports

But it isn’t really the danger factor that marks out extreme sports. According to Nicholas Heyworth from Sports England, many are less dangerous than traditional sports: ‘Statistically, the most dangerous sport is horse riding.’ One ‘aggressive skating’ website warns you to ‘Skate safe, because pain and death suck!’, and another cliff jumping website is packed with disclaimers and warnings, such as ‘don’t drink and jump’, ‘never jump alone’ and ‘know your limits’. Heyworth notes that ‘many extreme sports guys have got safety equipment up to their eyeballs, and a complete safety team. You would be lucky to get a cold sponge and a bucket of water at a Sunday league rugby match’. A helicopter packed with medical equipment tracks participants in the Verbier Extreme.

Improvements in equipment allow the reduction in risk and pain. In the 1960s, skydiving was done by penniless daredevils using surplus US airforce chutes. One veteran recalls: ‘It hurt like hell and you drifted mercilessly at the will of the wind until you crashed to the ground and it hurt like hell again.’ (3) Now, he says, there are ‘high-income jumpers who not only make eight jumps a day, but pay someone to pack their parachutes’. Even the most extreme of extreme sport pales into comparison beside the exploits of the early climbers and explorers, for whom the risks were great and the outcomes unknown. The advert for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 Trans-Antarctic expedition read: ‘Men wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’

Much of the hype about extreme sports comes not from the participants, but from the industry that surrounds it. Extreme sport goods – including TV programmes, graffiti art, design, drinks, and clothing – are a bigger business than the sports themselves. The Extreme Sports Channel has an estimated audience of 20million across Europe, most of whom wouldn’t go anywhere near a half-pipe – it’s popular among Portuguese women, for example.

The Extreme Media Group sells a range of clothing and drinks. The ‘Extreme energy’ drink is formulated to ‘deliver an intense physical and mental energy boost’, using Asian fermented tea, Siberian ginseng and guarana (a natural form of caffeine). There is even ‘Extreme water’ (‘the pure artesian mineral water from the Rockhead source in Buxton, will rehydrate you fast’), and Extreme Chillout (‘new gen soft drink created to aid relaxation, recovery and all round chilling’) (4). Meanwhile, there is an X-Games brand of mobile phone: ‘Carry the excitement and attitude of X Games with you everyday. The tweaked out phone allows devoted fans to capture the signature style and personality of the X Games in a wireless phone.’ (5)

But it’s not all image. Beneath the hype, lifestyle sports are a new kind of sport for a new age. While traditional sports elevated the values of commitment and fair play, these new sports offer individuals a more personal kind of challenge.

Sport: from team to individual

Most traditional sports were institutionalised in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Prior to that, sport had been more informal, with the different teams in a rugby match deciding on the rules at the start of the game. Indeed, many sports were just a more or less organised form of fighting: early ‘football’ involved neighbouring villages scrapping over a pig’s bladder.

As the historian Eric Hobsbawm outlines in The Invention of Tradition, institutionalised sport provided a gel for an industrialising society. Factory owners set up football teams for their workers (Arsenal was the team of London gun-makers), to tie them into the firm and provide an outlet for aggression. Meanwhile, the ruling class formalised its own sports – tennis, golf, and rugby union – which Hobsbawm describes as a ‘conscious…effort to form a ruling elite’. Business was done on the tennis court and golf course, and the values of sportsmanship and fair play became the signature tunes of the British elite.

Now that class and community identity is on the wane, traditional sporting associations have suffered. A boys’ football team, for example, requires parents as volunteer helpers, and for each member of the team to play by the rules and turn up for practice. Professor Neil Ravenscroft, a research fellow at the University of Brighton, tells me that ‘Volunteers to run sport outside of school are declining. And young people have less commitment to the idea that you adhere to sets of rules that are not yours, and turn up to training regularly’.

Lifestyle sports provide more individualised ways of pushing yourself. There is no winning and losing as such, and little organisation into teams or leagues. Each individual is really competing against himself: the founder of free running, Sebastien Foucan, said that the sport was about a ‘desire to overtake yourself’. How a free runner tackles the urban landscape is up to him. There are some established moves – a cat jump, speed vault, a palm spin, and so on – but you are always free to invent your own. This contrasts with sports such as gymnastics, when athletes have a certain time to perform, a set piece of equipment and a limited series of moves.

Extreme sports claim to be confronting authority. Rather than work within leagues and sporting bodies, participants say that they are doing it for themselves. Bandit canoeing goes down forbidden waterways, and off-piste snowboarding and skateboarding crash off set tracks. Free runners claim to challenge the official architecture of the city. Ez, who runs the east London free running academy, says: ‘I like the freedom aspect, the fact that every individual has their own way of overcoming. The average person will be guided by pavements, but with parkour you interact with obstacles, you won’t be guided by them.’

The only rules are those tacitly agreed by participants. A street basketball site or skateboarding half pipe will have a set of agreements about what’s allowed. At Brighton skateboarding park, for example, there are different times of the day for different abilities.

For some, lifestyle sports can be character developing. Once boys were sent out to freezing football and rugby fields to make men of them; now they might assault a half-pipe instead. They go at a jump again and again, falling off and picking themselves up until they can finally do it. In this way, you bear the consequences of your actions. One climber explained the attraction: ‘there must be something which can be won and something which can be lost. The winning can be the unutterable joy as your questing fingers latch a crucial edge. The losing can be life itself. Either way we choose.’ (6)

Extreme sports can also enable you to confront fears. Some free runners are scared of heights, yet will perform complicated leaps between high buildings. They still their minds before the jump, overcome the part of them that wants to balk. This isn’t about taking risks for the sake of it: instead, it’s the calculated judgement of the sportsman. Ez argues that free running ‘requires discipline to do it properly, which is transferred to other aspects of life’. Some claim that the thrill of the jump can cast the grind of everyday life into perspective. One young BASE-jumper says: ‘It’s the way to refresh things, to keep the mind awake. You have plenty of time to think about yourself, the mountain you stand on, your life, people you meet, things you’re doing.’

Of course, some people look to these new sports for easy thrills. They want the appearance of doing something ‘craaa-zy’ like skydiving or bungee jumping, while relying on the instructor to ensure that nothing goes wrong. But some participants want to put themselves to the test. This comes at a time when institutionalised sports are being tied up in regulation, with risk analysis required before every rugby game and players suing the referee if they get injured. In schools, kids are encouraged to go for non-cooperative games that reinforce everybody’s self-esteem. Lifestyle sports might provide an opportunity for some individuals to develop themselves.

The limits of extreme sports

Because lifestyle sports are so individualised, however, they are liable to go off in bizarre directions. Without social sanction and discipline, these sports can look like the more ridiculous parts of the Guinness Book of Records, with people riding bikes up trees or ironing up mountains. This is casting around, looking for something – anything – to test yourself.

These sports can also revel in individuals’ isolation, the fact that they don’t have to rely on anybody else. This is a limited form of subjectivity: in reality, we develop ourselves by working with and against others. Traditional sports provided a way for individuals to push themselves through the challenge of competition, or by working together as a team. A hundred-metre runner, for example, is trying to beat the other runners rather than just his PB – and this challenge takes him to new heights. Lifestyle sports can encourage a narcissistic focus on individual performance, rather than pushing the limits of human achievement.

There is something childish, too, about the desire to traverse official boundaries. Canoeing where you aren’t supposed to be canoeing, jumping where you’re not supposed to jump…this involves the guilty freedom of a child breaking the rules. Paradoxically, an obsession with breaking rules actually leaves you beholden to them.

Hype and reality

So there is both potential and limits to extreme sports. In order to understand the pros and cons, though, we have to cut through the hype that surrounds them. This hype owes less to the participants than to the extreme sports industry.

This industry makes the idea of ‘living on the edge’ into a consumer product. Deep down, we all feel that we should be pushing ourselves a bit more; the extreme sports industry sells the image of aspiration. Wear a ‘Just do it’ cap; drink a can of ‘Live life to the max’ Pepsi; talk on an X-Games mobile phone. This is about the appearance of living on the edge, posing at taking risks while actually doing nothing at all. In the passive act of buying a consumer good, you are offered thrills and spills. It’s not the real act of grappling with a challenge, but the image of ‘pushing it to the MAX’. This is why extreme sports are so hyped up: the adrenaline factor is sold in concentrated form.

Some of these new sports are little more than PR products. There are actually a tiny number of dedicated free-runners, and many of will only perform for the camera. The sport became a media phenomenon before it built up a decent base of participants; now it can be more for show than self-development. Extreme sports often have a short shelf life: they will be the in thing for a few months, but soon get overtaken by the next fad. XFL, an ‘extreme’ version of American football that was a mix of NFL and WWF wrestling, was set up in 2000, but folded after just one season (7).

So let’s put aside the extreme hype, and look at these sports as just another kind of sport. They offer some potential for individual development – although often only by leaping in odd directions.

(1) American Sports Data website

(2) Quoted in ‘Lifestyle sports and national sports policy: an agenda for research’

(3) You can buy a thrill: chasing the ultimate rush, American Demographics, June 1997 Vol 19, issue 6

(4) Extreme drinks

(5) X-Games mobile

(6) Quoted in ‘Lifestyle sports and national sports policy: an agenda for research’

(7) XFL – the history

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Topics Politics


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