Those daring activities we all know and love that plunge us into adrenaline-peaked tremors of exhilaration and danger. But what do you really know about extreme sports? What exactly makes a sport extreme, or an extreme activity a real sport? Most importantly, from where and how did all this masochistic fury originate?
First, let’s talk definitions. The textbook description of an ‘extreme sport’ riffs heavily on the element of danger, and specifically, any activity that is perceived as possessing an inherently high level of the stuff.
While the term is generally dished out loosely – a sort of ballpark acceptance of anything extreme enough looking — another school of thought seeks to ensure both terms are fulfilled before the ‘extreme sport’ status can be granted.
What this boils down to for the ‘sporting’ aspect is that a participant must dispose of a considerable skill or physical ability to avoid “poor execution of the said activity”. When it comes to the ‘extreme’ bit, the participant must ensure that the “poor execution of said activity” would engender considerable risk of their physical harm.
Semantically, things get a bit murky for ‘extreme sports’ here. Little skill is required, for example, bungee jumping off the Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge (short of a decent load of chutzpah and an iron bowel). Yet who’s doubting the level of extremity? It may not be a sport, but let’s not get too bogged down in semantics.
Fluro Flying High
To consider something a little more stimulating, let’s take a look at where extreme sports originated. Many pundits believe the term ‘extreme sports’ was first thrown around circa-1950, via the phrase:
“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
Hemingway is frequently attributed with coining the expression, and though fitting to his machismo character, there’s a good chance it’s not true (again, never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn).
What we do know is that in the 1970s, four students from Oxford University initiated the world’s first official ‘Dangerous Sports Club’, and the group is widely considered the catalysts behind the first ever attempts at bungee jumping, introducing the pastime with the first modern jump recorded, aptly so, on April 1, 1979, off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, United Kingdom.
With a penchant for the absurd – thrill-seeking’s answer, perhaps, to the Monty Python troupe – the Dangerous Sports Club backed up their bungee thrills with a new form of surrealistic skiing, where participants were to careen down slopes on self-devised sculptures mounted on skis. The event in St Moritz, Switzerland was shut down when the Club members arrived with the intention to launch a double decker red London bus down a diamond run (apparently, doing so with a grand piano, giant horse and canoe – earlier triumphs – were deemed within the bounds of acceptability).
Hang-gliding (often from active volcanoes), zorbing, and base-jumping all find their roots in the minds of the unruly Oxford crew. Criminal transgressions in more recent years aside, we have them to thank.
Which is all well and good, but why the need for all this? Today, we live in a world saturated by feats of maniacal endurance and radical madness. Some theorists propose that ‘civilised’ humanity is simply bored, and one pushes the limits between life and death in order to feel the ancient memory of adrenaline embedded in our primeval reptilian mind. We miss the old risks, so we eat to excess, climb the highest peaks, and strap ourselves into catapults.
Most of all, we remain ever on the search, toeing the frontier for new ridiculous ways to find our cheap thrills. May it forever be the case.
Here’s the loony story of The Dangerous Sports Club:
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