Generation X-treme

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

AT THE so-called X-Games, the Olympics of dangerous and daring "sports" next month, the Brummie sky-surfer Mike Frost will jump out of a plane above Mariner's Point, San Diego with a surf-board strapped to his feet. He will start "free-flying", a head-first dive through the sky, watching the Pacific Ocean below him as he increases his speed to 180 mph. It's then, he says, that he and his cameraman, Andy Ford, will begin to "explore our own dimensions: carving the air, synchronising barrel- rolls, spinning at five revolutions per second, travelling laterally at a speed of 50 to 60 mph."

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.

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
newsChester Zoo have revealed their newest members
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
The video, titled 'A Message to America', was released a day after Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that has overrun large parts of Iraq, threatened to attack Americans 'in any place'. U.S. officials said they were working to determine the video's authenticity
i100
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Data Insight Manager - Marketing

    £32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

    Business Analyst

    £250 - £350 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst, Bristol, Banking, Business Obje...

    Internal Communications Advisor - SW London

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Communications Advisor - SW...

    Data Insight Manager

    £40000 - £43000 Per Annum plus company bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape