Going To Extremes

Climbing, jumping, plunging - high-risk sports, and the lifestyles theypromote, aren't just for pro daredevils anymore.

The man reaches tentatively for the rocky handhold just above his head, his left foot beginning to slip on a small outcropping. He's 60 feet straight up a climb called The Pinnacle, and he knows that the harness he wears, tethered to another man below, should prevent a disastrous fall. Still, it's an anxious moment for him and for his climbing partners, who are watching intently.

"You can do it, Dad!" says a young girl in a harness and waiting her turn. Next to her, her brother and their mother - also in harnesses and climbing shoes that look like snubby, muscular ballet slippers - wait as well.

But this is not El Capitan, the famous rock face in Yosemite National Park. It's downtown Seattle, where the REI outdoor store features an artificial climbing structure for customers who want to try out new equipment.

Rock climbing, like white-water rafting and skydiving, used to be considered a daredevil sport for a bold few, the unusually fit. Not so today, when families taking up such activities are as common as SUVs at a suburban mall, or when former President George Bush jumps out of a perfectly good airplane to celebrate his birthday.

"Extreme sports" have hit the United States big time. And you know that when something exciting and with just a hint of danger and sexiness goes mainstream, marketing schemes are not far behind.

"Extreme Championship Wrestling" on TNN, the "X Games" on ESPN, and the "Gravity Games" on NBC - all packed with high-energy ads - are big hits. After you've worked up a good sweat and a big appetite, Boston Market restaurants want you to tear into an "extreme carver" sandwich. There's "Extreme Golf Canada 2000," billed as a "unique millennium cross-country golf tour." "Going to Extremes," a recent cover story in Women's Wear Daily, features sporty clothing by designers like Ralph Lauren.

Yankelovich pollsters (a firm that tracks opinions and does trend research) have been asking a cross-section of Americans if they "like to imagine myself doing something I know I wouldn't dare to do." In 1995, 45 percent agreed. This year, the figure was up to 53 percent.

But it's not all weekend warrior stuff. It's more likely to be indulged in vicariously via TV or brand-name clothing and gear designed to project an outdoor image. The number of those who actually do things they consider dangerous has only edged up from 23 percent to 25 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, relatively new activities such as street luging, wakeboarding, and BASE. jumping - parachuting from buildings, antennas, spans (bridges), or earth (cliffs) - are gaining in popularity.

Some are of questionable legality. Most states outlaw street luging on public thoroughfares - imagine lying flat on your back on an elongated skateboard, no brakes but your feet, rocketing down the Santa Monica Freeway. BASE jumpers in Yosemite - where two have been killed in recent months - are arrested and their gear confiscated.

What prompts the desire to hurtle at high speed down a road or to leave the relative security of terra firma? Some experts say it's the innate human desire to test courage and physical abilities to their limits. Sports psychologist Frank Farley at Temple University in Philadelphia calls them "type T" people.

"These are the thrill seekers, the risk takers, the get-to-the-edge type of personalities," says Dr. Farley, who's been studying such folks for 35 years. "They're the mountain climbers, the hang gliders, the people who sail around the world in a 10-foot sailboat."

And it's not just white-knuckle risk takers he's talking about. Albert Einstein was a "mental type T." Daredevil Evel Knievel is a "physical type T." While there are "negative type T's" (those who drink and drive, for example), much of what we think of as progress is "fueled and driven" by the positive type T's, Farley says. This includes risk takers in the arts, sciences, and business, and those who have explored new frontiers on earth and in space.

Increasing wealth, the development of high-tech equipment, and even the relative absence of traditional risks such as war or homesteading in the wilderness are cited as reasons behind the growth in high-risk activities. Others argue that large doses of ego and the relative ease of modern life are involved, plus the desire to display a youthful, rebellious attitude (whether you're 16 or 46).

"Much of that has to do with the affluence and boredom of America's upper and middle classes," observes University of Pennsylvania senior Andrew Exum, in his regular column in Penn's student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. "Spurred on by the current financial boom and an apparent lack of anything else to do, many Americans today can simply afford to do things that used to be done only by professional adventurers.

"But being able to pay for a trip to the top of Everest [the going rate is about $60,000] doesn't explain why you would risk your life and actually go. Somewhere in the American consciousness lies the need to take risks and be adventurous. Call it the Lewis and Clark syndrome. If given the opportunity to take risks, we will."

It's not just Americans. This past summer, 21 adventurers (mostly Australians and New Zealanders) rappelled into a steep canyon in Switzerland to do "canyoneering" - sliding down white-water chutes. They were killed in a flash flood.

This attraction to thrilling activities is particularly apparent in the "alternative" competitions featured in the "X Games" and the "Gravity Games."

"It's definitely dangerous," says Lee Dansie, who won a gold medal in the two-man downhill skateboard competition at the "Gravity Games" in Providence, R.I., in September. He also crashed and was injured (not seriously) in the six-man street luge event. "What's not dangerous about lying on an eight-foot-long skateboard a half inch off the ground doing 80 miles an hour?" Especially when five other wild men on hurtling luges are trying to occupy the same space you are, he might have added.

While such activities - along with the clothing, the tattoos, body-piercings, and the choice of music - constitute a lifestyle for many adherents, they're also big business for many young men (and some women) who take part.

Michael "Biker" Sherlock is a good example. With his unruly shoulder-length blond locks and "hey, dude!" demeanor, he projects the quintessential extreme sports image. But he's also a professional who took two gold medals and two silver medals - prize money totaling $35,500 - in downhill skateboarding and street luging at the "Gravity Games." The businessman from San Diego owns and runs Extreme Downhill International, the sanctioning body for downhill skateboard and street luge events, and he is sponsored by several companies. Does this mean he's forsaken the "alternative" life for conventionality?

"As long as you don't change the way you are or the way you reflect yourself for your sponsors, then you're not a sellout," he told Advertising Age magazine. "You have to stay true to yourself."

Mr. Sherlock's comment fits another observation by sports psychologist Farley: Such activities almost always involve individual expression - even creativity - rather than teamwork.

"I don't know how extreme sports are going to end," Farley says. "They're hot and getting hotter."

With extreme golf now available - including Microsoft's "Links Extreme" video game, described as "golf with an attitude" - can extreme bowling be far behind?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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