A Black day at bad rock

Alan Hubbard watches a British-born world champion take a dive from a cliff to a hard place but still come up smiling

Remember The final scene from
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Redford and Newman link hands and leap off a cliff towards a river below screaming, "Oh, shhhit!"? Steve Black knows the feeling. He has been jumping off cliffs for years. Diving off them, actually, and he has become well acquainted with that same sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.

Remember The final scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Redford and Newman link hands and leap off a cliff towards a river below screaming, "Oh, shhhit!"? Steve Black knows the feeling. He has been jumping off cliffs for years. Diving off them, actually, and he has become well acquainted with that same sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.

The world cliff-diving champion has perfected the art of making a splash - or rather, trying not to make too much of one - from a considerable height. He smiles as he does so, looking oh so relaxed and making it all seem easy. He's the ultimate showman, but confesses to severe stage-fright. "Every time I dive, I'm afraid for my life. It's scary. But that's the buzz about it, how you get off on a high. If you don't get butterflies, get out of the business."

The butterflies were flying all right last week, in our stomachs as well as the British-born Black's as we watched him and his fellow divers plunge from 28 metres off a clifftop in a mountain glade high above the Swiss village of Brontallo, close to Locarno. With the backdrop of a roaring waterfall, the second leg of this year's Red Bull Cliff-Diving World Championships attracted an eclectic bunch of Butch and Sundance-like characters, all prepared to hurl themselves off a platform built into the cliff face and plunge down into a rock-ringed pool in the name of sport. You have probably seen those TV clips of the high-divers in Acapulco, but these guys say that's showbiz stuff for the tourists. In Brontallo, watched by a picnicking crowd and marked by judges who had to wade through the water to reach their perches on the sloping rocks, 18 of the world's most intrepid divers performed aerial gymnastics for three seconds of freefall before emerging from the steel-blue water, fists punchingExcalibur-like through the surface.

Most of the contestants, like Black, were professionals, some of them stuntmen, but there was a fireman from Yugoslavia and an engineer from Denmark. At the end of the day in Brontallo, Black was lying second to a 25-year-old Colombian, Orlando Duque.

Cliff-diving comprises all the Olympic disciplines, the somersaults, pikes, twists, turns and tucks performed with a high degree of difficulty and packed into those three seconds before the divers hit the water feet first. That's the main difference. From this height, three times that of the top 10-metre board in orthodox diving, it is deemed too dangerous to go headfirst.

They used to do it that way until a few necks got broken. Only one man, Frederic Weil, the Swiss president of the World High-Diving Federation, still chooses to enter headfirst, as he demonstrated in Brontallo. "Crazy guy," murmurs Black. A brave one, too.

There are a few other differences. At Ponds Forge you don't have to watch out for razor-sharp pieces of jutting rock on the way down. And frogmen patrol the apparently bottomless pool, ready to fish out the divers, while boys in dinghies smack and flick the water to break the surface tension and scare away the fish. It isn't so much the pike on the way down that causes problems as the perch in the pool. Hitting one can be a painful experience, for both fish and diver. Most of the divers wear several pairs of trunks too - it is called "double bagging" - because thudding into the water at around 60mph from such a dizzying height can mean, as one diver delicately described it, instant colonic irrigation.

Before his dive, which can start forwards, backwards or from a handstand, you will see a performer do two things. First he inserts a gumshield, because the instinct on impact is to bite your tongue. America Todd Michael forgot his last year and ended up having his tongue stitched back together. Then he will toss a piece of cloth into the pool to see which way the wind is blowing. A sudden gust could sweep him into the rockface. Although there are relatively few accidents to the ratio of risk, most divers have sustained fractures, muscle tears, and painful thwacks to knees and groin. "It's all part of the sport," shrugs Black. Sport? "Mostdefinitely. An extreme sport, but one with all the elements."

It is also Black's profession. When not picking up world championship points, he dives for a living in shows around the world. Should cliff-diving ever become an Olympic sport, the 34-year-old Black could take the Rusedski-Lewis route to wave the flag for Britain. Although brought up in Canada and now living on the Gold Coast, in Australia, with his wife, Jeanine, an Australian synchronised swimmer and diver, he has a British passport because he was born in Woodford Green, Essex, living there for seven years with his parents, who were Canadian diplomats. He was training to represent Canada as a diver in the 1988 Olympics when a friend enticed him into joining adiving show in the United States.

Although there are a few female high-divers, it is largely a male domain because of the battering taken by the body. Even so, there are only a few dozen regulars on the circuit. These are Black's fourth world championships and while he acknowledges you require the suppleness of a gymnast and the strength of an athlete the vital ingredient, he says, is experience. Most divers are over 30.

"It takes years to perfect the balance and technique," he says. "You need a wise head on your shoulders to make sure that once you commit yourself to a dive, you don't do anything daft." Otherwise, as those swishing through the mountain air at Brontallo were only too aware, you could end up with more than just raindrops falling on your head.

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