Remember when bungee-jumping was the acme of daring? `X-games' have come a long way since then. Tobias Jones reports on the peculiar new world of the mad-for-it zorbers, street-lugers and sky-surfers
Sunday 17 May 1998
Frost is one of a legion of people who now choose to spend their free time risking their necks. Nearer sea level, or rather a long way below it, Mehgan Heaney-Grier (pictured on cover) goes "free-diving". A 19 year- old, part-time model, she is the captain of the American team which will be competing in Sardinia next month. Simply holding her breath for up to two minutes - she uses no oxygen tanks - she will swim to depths of up to 165 feet (the women's world record is 210 feet) for fun: "it's a very relaxing thing to do. In a reef at say 80 feet, you can go and sit on the bottom, with no nosey bubbles around you." Like all proselytizers for reckless recreation, she talks in hushed tones about the holistic experience of glimpsing death. "When you're that deep underwater, you feel compressed all over. It's like having a huge bear hug, or being squeezed into a test-tube. But it's absolutely beautiful, very tranquil, very peaceful".
Now that every self-respecting person under fifty seems to have completed either a bungee or parachute jump (no, not me); and now that a birthday hot-air balloon ride, or a sky-diving wedding, are now fairly mainstream, risk-addicts are looking ever further afield for their kicks and turning to new and truly silly sports. (Because when even an MP, the Liberal Lembit Opik, goes paragliding - picking up abdominal injuries in the process - the old ones seem automatically passe).
So the list of life-endangering leisure pursuits seems to lengthen every week.: "sky-surfing", "base-jumping:"(a leap - illegal in this country - from the top of a building), "aerial ballet" (synchronised sky-diving) or "free-climbing" (legging it up a rock face without the ropes.) Then there's "street-lugeing" (lying on a surf-board size skate-board, careering feet-first down a hill) and "off-piste in-lining" (rollerblading down a mountain). In the booming industry of providing adrenalinal recreation, even "zorbing" and "fly-by-wire" are becoming normal pursuits. (They entail, respectively, rolling down a stupidly steep hill, inside a washing-soda- like ball of transparent plastic; and "flying" suspended by elastic cables stretched across a canyon, powered by a huge hair-drier.)
"These things are definitely an outlet," explains Frank Furedi, author of The Culture of Fear. "People's ability to conceptualise doing exciting things has been thwarted by computers and technology. Without taking these often outrageous risks, many feel their lives to be rather sad, ordinary and banal."
The grand-daddy of all these `seat of your pants' pastimes (if one excludes the establishment eccentricity of Oxford's Dangerous Sports Club, complete with its memento mori, the wheel-chair emblem) is A.J. Hackett. Hackett is from New-Zealand - a country which provides a disproportionate amount of the world's adrenalinal loons - and it was he who began the bungee- jumping craze. About to celebrate its tenth anniversary, Hackett's company now has over 25,000 customers queueing up at one site alone, Kawarau.
While still maintaining a hint of the counter-cultural, extreme sports such as Hackett's bungee-jumping have moved inexorably into the mainstream; it's typical that the Canadian snow-boarder who tested positive for marijuana at the winter olympics still managed to hold onto his gold medal. And what was once a dope culture, with its own niche fashion (baggy and fluorescent) and musical tastes (punk, ska), has mushroomed into a marketer's dream. Charles Ross, who works for the British Parachute Association and lectures in Performance Sportswear Design in Derby, says, "the packaging has suddenly become incredibly professional. There's been a big build up of fashion surrounding these sports. Because of television interest, there's major corporation backing from blue-chip companies: Pepsi-Cola, Playstation and so on."
Magazines like No Limits World have recently been launched, and even Ralph Lauren has concocted a few perfumes for his "Extreme Polo Sports" range to catch the mood: there's "The Surge", complete with Cardamon and Cypress, or "The Freefall" with Sandalwood and Elemi. Then, two weeks ago, Stoke-on-Trent City Council approved planning permission for a pounds 250,000 vertical wind tunnel similar to ones already in use in Israel and Florida; due to open in July, it has been masterminded by Phil Roberts, a former RAF engineer and free-fall parachute trials officer. A huge aircraft propeller will basically blow up a column of air at 130 mph, allowing up to 5 people at once to enjoy the "rush", simulating a sky-dive as they hover only a few metres above the ground.
Late-night television - often being viewed by millions around the world because of satellite syndications - is now awash with the Day-glo clothes and manic smiles of the alternative sportsmen. British terrestrial TV offers Rad on Channel 5, Radical Highs on BBC, and then High Five on Channel 4. Steve Edmonds, producer and director of the High Five's series, says, "the major sporting properties, football, rugby and so on, are becoming so financially exclusive that we're having to broadcast very different programmes, looking at a whole range of recreational and solo sports. What we offer is an expose of soulful, lonely challenges."
But therein lies the ultimate irony of "radical", "high-flying" sports: for every brave participant, there are tens of thousands of viewers, merely oohing and aahing in their living rooms. It's a voyeuristic craze which, for all its action-packing, is very passive. "It's a case of selling an image to armchair enthusiasts," says Charles Ross. "It's an aspirational thing." Nor, in many cases, is there much risk involved. "It's nice to have people think it's very dangerous," admits Mike Frost, "but really it's a very safe discipline."
There is also a definite dispute about what exactly constitutes "extreme". "There's endless misuse of the word," says Steve Edmonds, "it's the media pigeon-holeing something which is jaw-dropping but often fairly tame. Snowboarding isn't extreme. I've watched Simon Jakeman [author of Ground Rush] jump off buildings in San Diego, and had to pray he was going to land alive: that's extreme. But we're so fed up with the X word; during the shooting of the last series we replaced every `extreme' reference with the word `moist'."
The televisual need to turn every event into a competition has also blunted the cutting edge. "Many people," says Ed Taylor, the director of Rad, "see the competitive element as watering down the sports: it becomes a case of assessed risk, with just more hype and razzmatazz." But Kevin Gaultier, the Operations Supervisor for US company ESPN, which will organise the X-Games, says it's what viewers want. "We have a whole generation of younger viewers, in over 100 countries, watching very, very competitive sports. Sure, there are a few broken bones, but once people have tuned in, they don't tune out."
But as a reminder of the very real risks, it was during the writing of this article that Patrick de Gayardon, (the Frenchman who Frost calls "the godfather of sky-surfing") was killed. Having already flown in a webbed `bat-suit' from the hatch of one plane into another, and having free-fallen into a 1,300 ft deepcave, only to open his parachute once inside, he died whilst on location in Hawaii: he was `tracking', going for lateral distance in the air, but having made alterations to his equipment, his parachute failed to open correctly. Meanwhile, in the UK, 1992 saw the base-jumper Darren Newton die after jumping off the Park Lane Hilton - a mere 328 feet. And last summer, another man broke his leg having leapt off the Barbican's 41-storey Shakespeare Tower. So when Mike Frost kindly asks me if I would like to join him jumping out of a plane, I have to tell him that I'm just not that extreme.
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