Riding a chairlift at New Hampshire's Mt. Sunapee, 15-year-old Jeff claps together his skis, a pair of Volant Machetes with a mirror finish. About 40 feet beneath him, a snowboarder is showered with a little of what the ski reports call frozen granular.
"Boarding used to be rebellious," says Jeff, a curl of burnt-orange-dyed hair poking out the front of his sticker-covered helmet. "It's not anymore."
At least not compared with Jeff's version of skiing. He does the jumps, tail grabs, and backward-riding that snowboarders do, but on two planks instead of one.
Rather watch than try? The eighth installment of the Winter X Games begins Saturday in Aspen, Colo., and may provide a distraction for those eager to escape the hype of next weekend's Super Bowl extravaganza.
But take note: All those hard-driving freestyle sports that rated as fringe 20 years ago - boarding through a half-pipe, for example - have gone mainstream.
The new extreme won't show up at the games: Street luge, mountain unicycling, and ironing clothes on mountain cliffs. The central themes reflect the kind of oddity and risk that show up on television's "Fear Factor" - or "Jackass."
For example, there's Slamball - basketball with trampolines, and harder contact. And boarder cross - a snowboarding event Sports Illustrated likened to "roller derby going down a mountain" - will reportedly make its Olympic debut in Turin, Italy, in 2006.
Also consider the advent of buttboarding, a variation on street luge (in both cases you speed downhill feet first, flat on your back, and hope someone remembered to close the road to traffic).
Then there's mountain unicycling. No road at all.
"There is just something satisfying about taking a unicycle, an inherently unstable vehicle, and riding it in places nobody thought it could go," writes one devotee on a website about the activity.
At the far end of the silly spectrum, an "extreme ironing" website hails the sport that "combines the thrills of an extreme outdoor activity [you iron, say, on a mountain pinnacle] with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt."
"You could liken that to the 'Stupid Human Tricks' that were on the Letterman show," says Douglas Turco, coauthor of "The Next Generation in Sport: Y." "And those really are the fringe elements of what we would consider sport."
Even Melissa Gullotti, spokeswoman for the X Games, admits the ESPN/ABC venture may have gone too far in introducing the attention-grabbing supermodified shovel racing in 1997. The event, in which competitors pushed a snow shovel down a hill, was dropped shortly after it appeared. "That's how you learn," says Ms. Gullotti. "Now we're sticking with sports that have longevity."
But according to some experts, certain new sports simply want to generate a market. They maintain that some of the more offbeat athletic events are geared more toward selling equipment or promoting the resort where an event is held.
"The media companies that have been trying to reach particular demographic segments of the population have found that those sports are great hooks to use to deliver messages," says Jay Coakley, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and author of "Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies."
Messages may fall flat when the weirdness factor gets too great. While Gen Y viewers may enjoy the spectacle, says Mr. Coakley, it is wrong to assume they will inevitably slingshot past the legitimate action sports they have adopted and into fringe activities meant only to turn heads.
"Nobody uses 'extreme' anymore, or 'alternative,' " says Gullotti. Yes, the X originally denoted "extreme;" now the games are considered "action sports."
Indeed, five of America's Top 10 participatory sports, as listed by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, show up at either the summer or winter X Games: inline skating, skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX biking, and wakeboarding. It's a fairly tame list.
Coakley maintains that their adopters are - with some dangerous exceptions - fairly tame, too. "I've observed a lot at skateboard parks, and some of the risky stuff happens, and it becomes the central lore of a particular group and gets embellished," says Coakley. "You start thinking everybody's doing it. [But] 90 percent of the kids out there are pretty cautious. You have some who are pretty good, and they're pushing some limits, but they're doing it under pretty controlled circumstances."
Nor are they forsaking more traditional sports, says Mr. Turco, citing the continuing rise of youth soccer. Rather, young athletes may just be broadening their collective palette, taking some cues from TV but not being manipulated.
In the summer, Jeff will come back up north from the Boston suburbs for some downhill mountain biking. He and some friends own the bikes that the sport demands, with hefty shocks and rims that won't "taco" - fold in half - when they encounter rocks. They'll run hard - and wear body armor. Nobody will be looking for cameras.
"I think that it's going to be a few trendsetters who are going to take this back to a purer kind of physical activity, one that shuns the glitter, and the media, and the commercialization - a cleaner activity done just for the sake of doing so," says Turco. "There is this counterculture that says 'I don't want to sell myself out.' "
By Bradley Rosenberg
Man has always had a desire to compete, at times in peculiar ways. Rap battles, thumb wars, and Slam Ball are just a few examples. But there are many more, including these particularly unusual competitions:
Man vs. horse marathon: That's right, this race in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, pits horses against humans for 22 miles. A human has yet to win in the 24 years that the competition has been held. Last year, the first human to cross the line finished in two hours and 17 minutes - 15 minutes behind the first horse.
Underwater rugby: Invented in 1961, this game has made a splash throughout all of Europe and parts of the United States. But it's most popular in its place of origin, Germany. The game is similar to rugby, with the main difference being that players must refrain from pulling on their opponent's swimsuit. Oh, and everything is underwater. Much thanks goes to inventor Ludwig von Bersuda; for without him, Germans would be playing rugby with entirely too much oxygen.
Haggis hurling: Few may know this, but of all the Scottish foods, haggis is the most fun to throw. This game was invented in the Scottish village of Auchnaclory, where wives would often toss their husband's haggis across a river rather than wade across the cold water to where their husbands worked. Today, the rich tradition is kept alive by several haggis hurling federations, and even a World Haggis Hurling Championship.
Wife carrying: Can't get your wife off your back? A fine circumstance for this event, in which wives are carried through a 277-yard obstacle course in Sonkajärvi, Finland. The idea originated in the late 1800s, when a Finnish thief challenged fellow scoundrels to carry what they stole across an obstacle course. And in those days, stealing women from the neighboring village wasn't unusual. The Wife Carrying World Championship, however, is more innocuous, as most men carry their own wives.
Buzkashi: When translated into English, this national sport of Afghanistan means "goat grabbing." Quite accurate, for the game involves several men on horseback carrying a goat carcass into their team's designated scoring circle. The sport dates back to the days of Genghis Kahn, and was used to prepare his forces for combat. It was useful, for whenever the Mongols fought goats, they never lost.
World beard and mustache championships: It is not uncommon for a man to stare into a bathroom mirror, stroke his beard, and wonder whether his facial hair is championship material. Thanks to this event, he no longer has to wonder. Organized in 1990 by the First Höfener Beard Club in Germany, the World Beard and Mustache Championships have become a biannual event. The championships are competitive, yet not one has been won by a close shave.
Competitive sheep counting: This competition, first held in September 2002 in Hay, Australia, involved some 400 sheep running past 10 contestants, who would then count them. The one with the most accurate total was crowned king of sheep counting. This competition did not continue in 2003. Perhaps the organizers fell asleep.