Extreme Sports

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Extreme sports, variously known as "whiz" sports, adventure sports, "panic" sports, alternative sports, "X" sports, and, in 2004 as "action" sports, describe a way of being, rather than a finite set of activities. Though ESPN (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, based in the United States) may have first successfully coined the term "extreme sport" in alignment with their 1995-produced Extreme Games, the types of activities that compose "extreme" sports, linked somewhat to sport, have been around for many years. The key common element in extreme sports appears to be a desire by the participant for what Roger Caillois, in his book Man, Play, and Games, termed "vertigo" in physical activity. Secondary reasons for participating seem to include a desire to meet challenges that have never been met, akin to the challenge of natural elements as obstacles and coparticipants; a desire, at least in the late twentieth century, by participants to be in control of their own physical being, without the intrusion of adult supervision and guidance; a lived-rhetoric that is antiestablishment in its nature.

But, fundamentally, the "extreme" element of these sports is an insistence on the aspects of physical movement that may disorient, temporarily confuse, or cause a so-called "adrenaline rush" to the participant. In fact, sport psychologists are exploring the possibility that there may be a gene keyed to a need for such thrill seeking in certain individuals. However, it is clear that, as a socially constructed model, the idea of "extreme sports" resonates with a Westernized justification of personal hedonism that is becoming globalized. Certain individuals appear to seek activities that have been situated as out-of-the-ordinary, thrilling, and that involve both spatial and temporal extraordinary kinds of disorientation.

As a made-for-television activity, extreme sports has co-opted lifestyle activities such as roller blading (or inline skating), skateboarding, snowboarding, street luge, bungee jumping, wakeboarding, and other grassroots forms of leisure and recreational activity for their broadcasts. In some cases, the co-optation has resulted in both mainstream and dominant acceptance and co-optation of the sports by larger governing bodies. In snowboarding, for example, according to Duncan Humphreys, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) co-opted the sport for the Olympics by assigning the oversight of snowboarding to the Federation Internationale du Ski (FIS). By assigning oversight to a ski federation, the IOC alienated many snowboarders who believed in their independence and in their outsider status in relation to mainstream sport.

While resistance to mainstream co-optation is a common ethos that runs through many of the extreme sports, such resistance can result in the sport remaining underground and underappreciated. In some cases, such as bungee jumping (which was in the Extreme Games in 1995 and 1996), resistance to normative value structures and disinterest by the media still runs high, and the activity has been largely ignored. However, summertime extreme sports include such activities as sport climbing, stunt bike riding, extreme adventure racing (much like the teams that compose the Eco-Challenge), and wakeboarding. With ESPN's advertising might, these sports have become more accepted through television exposure.

Finding the Summer Extreme Games potentially lucrative, in 1997, ESPN began the Winter X Games. The sports initially included were snowboarding, supermodified shovel racing, ice climbing, snow mountain bike racing, and crossover slope-style snowboarding. The next year, ESPN included snocross, with snowmobiles racing one another, multiple contestant free skiing, multiple contestant snowboarding, snow mountain bike racing, individual snowboarding (slope-style, big air, and half-pipe), and speed ice climbing.

Historical Antecedents of Extreme Sports

The will to challenge the limits of human ability and to confront and surpass natural barriers has been a part of human physical endeavors for many thousands of years. Any so-called "superhuman" feat (such as the building of the Pyramids, creation of the Roman Appian Way, the design and execution of the Great Wall of China, or the erection of the Golden Gate Bridge) could categorically be classed within this grouping. However, examples of "sporting" extremism also abound.

While based in sacred elements, the ancient Mayans played ball games, including the game of tlachtli, in an open court, sometimes to the death. The losing captain would be decapitated, but this was considered an honor and was believed to convey him expeditiously to his afterlife. In the Middle Ages, for example, whole villages participated in village-versus-village games, occasionally resulting in death. One such game was ponte. In this capture the flag–like game, the citizens met on a bridge, and jabbed or knocked at one another with a targone, a kind of jousting stick.

But the real advent of extremelike sports came about with the growing presence of an individuated ethos within sport. Comparisons between individuals, teams, and nations served as real antecedents to thrill-seeking types of sports. Many origination stories prevail for the current extreme sports landscape, but a few examples of activities throughout the ages will suffice. Since its advent in 1783, ballooning and balloon races have been a part of the extreme landscape; a form of "in-line" skating is said to have begun in the early 1700s in Holland, when someone fastened wooden spools to his shoes to simulate ice skating during the nonwinter months; ancient Polynesians were said to both body surf and surf with board planks; bullfighting began in 1133, in Vera, Logroño; some forms of spelunking and competitive caving have existed for centuries; cliff diving has been, in some forms, in existence as long as there have been courageous souls to attempt it. And the list goes on.

But there have also been, within the list of sport activities, a variety of ways of testing one's limits. Championship bare-knuckles boxing, which proliferated in the 1800s in the western world particularly, evolved into endurance contests, where one man would be left standing after dozens of rounds. Underwater swimming for distance, for time, for depth, for speed down and back up—all of these ways were fabricated in order to somehow test the limits of human endurance and fortitude. Round-the-world balloon and yacht races have flourished for years. Mechanized vehicular races—such as airplane speed or endurance races—also would fall into the category of extreme sports, and they would be antecedents to BMX races, monster truck contests, and so forth, that were in vogue in the early 2000s. All of these forms of sporting endeavor tested the concept of "extreme," for as soon as one type of activity became extreme, another would spring up to replace it.

The common element connecting most of these activities was a test of time, of space, or of both time and space. Limits in a multitude of dimensions seem to characterize whether an activity is "extreme" or merely mainstream. And the bettering of old records—records being, according to Allen Guttmann (via Max Weber), a fairly modernist concept in sports—certainly may create more interest in the sport activity.

Proliferation of Extreme Sports

Although ESPN is clearly credited as the primary corporate source promoting extreme sports, individuals and other corporations have also had an impact on the proliferation of extreme activities in the popular imaginary, electronic media, and leisure-time pursuits. Such activities as boarding (including surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, Snurfing, windsurfing), sailing (including sky surfing, parasailing, hang-gliding, windsurfing, sailing, wakeboarding), and motor-driven sports (such as motocross, jet-skiing, one-time motorcycle leaps, snowmobiling) all have common characteristics, which serve to drive ever-new amalgams of these activities. And while ESPN has dominated the global cable market in purveying such sport forms through broadcasts of the Winter and Summer X Games, other competitive "Olympic style" events, as well as weekly local or regional events, have blossomed. The process of such proliferation has tended to follow the historical process of the spread of sports generally.

First, there are the innovators of the sport, individuals who, with an idea like fastening roller skate wheels to the bottom of a board, experiment with combinations of things already known and those unknown. Then there is a core group of those who practice, refine, and demonstrate the new activity. Though this group tends to be small, the members seek new participants. However, truly mass participation starts fairly slowly, with a general resistance by the innovators of the new activity toward an eventual and, some practitioners say, inevitable "spoiling" of their space, time, and ethos.

But as the mass participation begins to catch on, critical mass is approached, and the sports begin to conform more to massified, mainstream types of sport activities in their use of space, alignment with corporate interests, time constraints, and mainstream acceptance of ethos, styles, and argot. As well, the mainstream acceptance seems to facilitate a lessening of the cultural impression that the activity is, indeed, "extreme" or innovative. And then the cycle, with a new amalgamated activity, begins again.

Many of the new activities are drawn eclectically or as amalgamations from other sport forms. For example, as identified in Joe Tomlinson's book The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Extreme Sports, there is land and ice yachting, combining water-based sailing efforts on a different surface; there is BASE jumping, or "sky-diving" from land-based implements such as buildings, antenna towers, spans, and earth; there is free diving, where an individual ocean dives for depth, the current record being over 400 feet.

While these activities and sports are not vigorously promoted by the media, the media do have an active role in the public's acceptance for such activities. Not only do extreme athletes compete in the weeklong ESPN X Games in summer and winter, but they also have a variety of venues in which to perform and, ultimately, make a living. Some of these media- and corporate-driven events include the Gravity Games, Sheshreds, Tony Hawk's Boom Boom Huckjam Tour, the Vans Triple Crown, and a variety of other sport-specific national and international tours. Prior to the X Games, for example, there are regional competitions that stimulate interest in local and international competitions, creating greater numbers of spectators who identify with the athletes. Often, equipment or clothing companies eager to align themselves with the "authentic" extreme sports sponsor these events. The events also may consist of traveling groups of "professional" athletes, who, in a sense, are "barnstorming" through the country promoting their sport.

Examples of Extreme Sports

Many individuals from a variety of nations have experimented with the extreme elements of sports' activities. Robert Rinehart has listed a variety of these innovative sport forms. Some of the nonmainstream sporting events that might be classified as "extreme" include (but are not limited to) the following: "hang gliding, high wire, ski flying, soaring, caving, land and ice yachting (ice sailing), mountainboarding, showshoeing, speed biking, speed skiing, steep skiing, air chair, Jet Skiing, open water swimming, powerboat racing, snorkeling, speed sailing, . . . trifoiling . . . skateboarding, whitewater kayaking . . . professional beach volleyball [and korfball]" (though these may be seen as marginalized mainstream sports). There are "ultimate fighting . . . windsurfing, surfing . . . "extreme" skiing, deep-water diving (fixed weight, variable weight, and absolute diving), paragliding, sandboarding, and the Miner's Olympics." Other activities include "para-bungee (bungee from a hot-air balloon), bungee from a helicopter, underwater hockey, canoe polo, bicycle polo, jai alai (which, similar to pelota, is a new-world form with slightly different cultural significance, rule structure, and context), scuba (self contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving (e.g., for depth, time under, etc.), BASE jumping, indoor climbing (artificial climbing wall), ultra marathoning, netball, and bicycle stunt and freestyle" (p. 506). As Peter Donnelly points out, "There is also real risk—in solo climbing, deep sea diving, ocean yacht racing, hot air balloon epics, Himalayan and other high altitude mountaineering. . . . (1997).

As in most of the extreme world, much of the tours, sports, competitions, and stars and equipment are in rapid flux, vying for space in the ever-expanding extreme universe. The "extreme-scape" is constantly changing, so that new sports, contests, tricks, success and failure rates, critical mass of participants and spectators, and corporate intervention and sponsorship are always in flux. But the constants for these activities that are considered extreme appear to be perceived high risk factor, an emphasis on vertiginous aspects of physicality, usually a stress on individuality, and a shared antimainstream ethos.

See also: Bicycling; Mountain Climbing; Olympics; Parachute Jumping; Rock Climbing; Scuba Diving/Snorkeling; Skateboarding; Skiing, Alpine; Snowboarding; Triathlons; Wind Surfing


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——. "Alternative Masculinity and its Effects on Gender Relations in the Subculture of Skateboarding," Journal of Sport Behavior. 19 (3) (1996): 204–220.

Caillois, Roger. Man, Play, and Games. New York: Free Press, 1961.

Donnelly, Peter. "Re: Still More on X-Games. Sociological Aspects of Sports Discussion." Personal correspondence. 3 February 1997.

Guttmann, Allen. From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Rinehart, Robert E., and Synthia S. Sydnor, eds. To the Extreme: Alternative Sports, Inside and Out. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Rinehart, Robert E. "Emerging Arriving Sport: Alternatives to Formal Sports." In Handbook of Sports Studies. Edited by Jay Coakley and Eric Dunning. London: Sage Publications, 2000.

Wheaton, Belinda. "'New Lads'? Masculinities and the 'New Sport' Participant," Men and Masculinities 2 (2000): 434–456.

Robert E. Rinehart