To the EXTREME

Alternative competition features athletes on urethane wheels, at the end of rubber ropes, and way up in the sky

IF the guys who occupied Fort Adams in the 19th century could only see it now: The massive stone fortress that defended the tip of Rhode Island is now a high-energy epicenter for the Extreme Games.

Instead of rows of cannons, there is blaring rock music, colorful banners, and a funky staging area suited to this daring sports event, a made-for-TV spectacle.

The Games, which began June 24 and end Saturday, are a $10 million attempt by ESPN, the innovative cable-TV network, to package nine "extreme" or alternative sports - from bungy jumping and street lugeing to skateboarding, in-line skating, mountain biking, windsurfing, and the most "rad" of all, sky surfing. (In sky surfing, one skydiver does acrobatic stunts with a small surfboard while his partner videos the mind-boggling spins and flips.)

Clearly defining what constitutes an extreme sport (called "bold sports" in Britain) is not easy. "It simply means the ultimate, taking it to the edge," says Chris Fowler, a co-anchor on ESPN's Extremes Games coverage.

With TV viewership the main consideration, admission is free. The events, though geographically scattered across New England, are concentrated in Providence and Newport, R.I. "We might have gotten swallowed up in bigger cities," says Chris Stiepock, ESPN's director of public relations, who adds that reasonable proximity to the network's Bristol, Conn., headquarters is also a factor.

There are supposedly more journalists than jocks here: Some 500 news-media credentials have been distributed, and about 350 men and women athletes gathered here from around the world.

In two trips to Newport, though, this reporter saw little evidence of a large media presence or much in the way of published reports. The Games could be too much of a curiosity at this point, and the press may be leery of publicizing an event that ESPN not only owns but also has promoted extensively. (In this way it resembles Ted Turner's Goodwill Games, a TBS creation that resembles the Olympics.) The on-air promotional blitz includes 2,000 ads on ESPN and ESPN2.

Altogether, ESPN and ESPN2 will carry 45-1/2 hours of the Games. Network president and CEO Steve Bornstein says that he and his associates "believe the Extreme Games will become a major international franchise in the years to come."

Richard Seril, 16, a lanky in-line skating participant from Pacific Grove, Calif., certainly hopes so. Last summer, after years of serious practicing, he qualified for the National In-Line Skate Series, a circuit of weekend races in southern California.

He had heard a rumor about the Extreme Games, but only learned of them officially when organizers called several months ago to ask him for his clothing sizes. Speaking of his expenses, he says, "Everything is covered but the plane ticket, but most everybody has sponsors."

The Games do, too: ESPN sold all its top-level corporate sponsorships to such heavy hitters as AT&T, Chevrolet Truck, and Pontiac. Such backing encouraged ESPN to take the boldest, most expensive programming leap it has ever made, but at least it's been able to economize on prize money. The total purse is $370,000, hardly enough to pay a single major-league baseball player's salary.

Extreme athletes, by contrast, are often young enthusiasts driven more by the thrill of participation and showing off than by commercial considerations.

"One thing we haven't had to worry about are shy athletes," network publicist Stiepock says. "They are all media friendly and dying to promote their sport."

What's happening at the Extreme Games, Seril says, is "not a rebellion" against more established sports like basketball, which he used to play. "We're just trying to bring these sports up to where other ones are," he says, "to get them recognition."

As a world-ranked in-line skater, Seril imagines that someday athletes of his caliber will skate on high school and college teams. What he's seen here makes him optimistic. Sitting in the bleachers, he looks out upon what he calls a "dreamland" of ramps, stairs, rails, and pipes that dot a large plywood stage inside the fort.

This is the playpen and competition site for in-line, BMX bike, and skateboard acrobats. Seril has never seen anything so elaborate or inviting, and he suspects that this skate and biking park could serve as a model for others.

Most of the sports here are in their infancy and growing rapidly, especially in-line skating and mountain biking, which enjoy large recreational bases. Some events at the Games, however, might be perceived as esoteric, kooky, dangerous, or all of the above.

ESPN recognizes the need for public education and aired a series called "Extreme Games 101" before the competition's kickoff. "We want to help to legitimize extreme sports," says coordinating producer Rich Feinberg.

"We want our athletes to be known as credible athletes, not daredevils," he says

"To a degree," he points out. "there is not a lot of difference between Rob Harris jumping out of a plane at 14,000 feet and Dale Earnhardt going 200 m.p.h. at Daytona Speedway."

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