Extreme Prejudice

Why daredevil athletes should take a flying leap.

When you leaf through Outside magazine’s 20th-anniversary issue this month, look for pictures of people jogging. Scan the pages for photo spreads of leisurely canoe trips over placid waters. I even dare you to spot a shot of a mildly paced, thought-inspiring hike over nontreacherous terrain. You won’t find them. You will find: Ironman triathletes; women who solo-sail entire oceans; men who wear armor to steer bicycles down mountains; and people who free-climb 3,000-foot rock faces–against a clock.

Exercise and competition-based daredevilry were discrete concepts once. When Outside began publishing in 1977, Ironman triathletes hadn’t been invented. Just two years before, Evel Knievel had riveted a larger-than-ever-before Wide World of Sports audience by jumping 14 Greyhound buses on his motorcycle. Today, it’s tough to distinguish Knievel from your average Web programmer on her day off.

Physical activity now means–at least on television and in magazines–pushing your limits, risking your life, winning. The October Outside includes a short essay ridiculing extreme sports but ignores how they have come to both dominate the magazine and define the modern recreation ethos. Former extreme sports such as mountain-biking and snowboarding have earned status as Olympic sports. Meanwhile, today’s extreme sportsmen continue to invent new events. ESPN’s X Games–the Nuremberg Rally of extreme sports–boasted such new events this summer as bicycle stunt-riding, skysurfing, and street luge. The upcoming Winter X Games promise such novelties as snow mountain-bike racing and motocross-style snowmobile racing. No word so far from the International Olympic Committee as to which of these exercises in obnoxious aggression might find a spot in the next unextreme Olympics.

To be sure, the urge to compete is eternal, as is the urge to seek thrills. What is the battlefield but extreme sport to the death? Think of the Grecian Olympics. Turn-of-the-century New Yorkers tested their nerves on train-wreck-simulating rides at Coney Island. But sometime in the ‘70s, the extremeness accelerated. Hang gliding attracted wild spirits everywhere, and the ‘80s gave rise to bungee jumping and BASE-jumping, the low-altitude parachuting off bridges and towers. (And only 39 deaths to date!)

There is no direct link between death-defying action and the consumption of clothes, soft drinks, watches, and other goods and services–beyond the one imagined by Madison Avenue, whose goal is to rouse couch potatoes from their slumber so they’ll pay attention to the ads. Corporate behemoths Procter & Gamble, AT&T, General Motors, and Visa sponsor the X-treme Games. Mountain Dew’s entire ad campaign equates danger and injury with cool and, by extension, with a heavily caffeinated yellow soda. No Fear, a popular clothing brand among teen-age boys, markets shirts that proclaim “SECOND PLACE is the FIRST LOSER” and “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.” One ad in the October Outside hypes a Sector watch “built to withstand the rigors of extreme endeavor. And the rage of over a thousand tons of ice water.” Elsewhere in the magazine, ads depict various extreme athletes endorsing various high-carb snacks.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

Advertisers also love extreme sports because they require lots of pricey, specialized gear that must be upgraded yearly if those in the vanguard hope to remain competitive. Mountain bikes can cost $10,000 now; they remain impossible to ride uphill. Advertisers don’t love 3-speed bikes that last 20 years and still work just fine. And they hate sports that require no more gear than an inflated ball and a pair of shoes.

Far be it from me to condemn anyone’s fun. But let’s return this cult of lunacy to the fringe. Teen-age boys needn’t live “on the edge” and dread losing. The active outdoor life shouldn’t translate to danger, cutthroat attitude, and debt. So go race your costly mountain bike off a cliff while gulping soda that tastes like fabric softener. I’ll take a barefoot jog on the beach. It’s free, nobody loses, and nobody gets hurt–how extremely delightful.