Outsider jocks who soar and crash for fun

The subculture of punk-rock athletes struggles against success to stay pure

Summer Olympians are easy to understand: Their bodies are flawless. They flash brilliant smiles. Their stories are bathed by network television in soft light and sweet music. They're swift and pure.

Then there are those other athletes, fearless and complex individualists fueled by punk rock, dressed as warriors. They perform feats that make spectators gulp. They crash. They're missing teeth. And they like it that way.

Over the past four decades, alternative American sports have moved from the fringes to emerge as a multimillion-dollar industry, which operates largely on its own terms. And not many people over 30 understand them. David Browne, the music critic for Entertainment Weekly, trains a journalist's eye on skateboarders, snowboarders, and BMX and motocross bikers to write one of the genre's first comprehensive books.

Some have lumped these daredevil stunts under the title of "extreme sports," but to participants, this terminology grates like asphalt on the nose. The "X Games," which held its 10th annual competition earlier this month, was shortened from "Extreme Games" because the athletes don't see themselves as extremists who are all guts and no skill. They're outsider jocks who prefer boards and bikes to bats and balls.

Theirs is an open rebellion against carefully controlled youth leagues with manicured playing fields and meticulous travel rosters. On the purest level, action sports are about creativity - and the freedom to make mistakes. The emphasis falls on getting the trick right, not beating an opponent.

As a growing number of youths were drawn to skateparks and half-pipes, market research discovered teenagers liked to spend money. Enter Mountain Dew, early '90s. The soft drink company was looking to remake itself by tying its brand to unbridled pep. ESPN and gearmakers followed along with sponsored competitions. Like any artistic medium, there were those who feared commercial involvement meant "selling out." But like all American sports, corporate sponsorship and network contracts are what reward efforts with staying power and cash.

"Amped" explores the struggle of this subculture to maintain its spirit as it goes mainstream. "To the riders," writes Browne, "the numbers [of people taking up their sports] proved they had been onto something all along; they weren't the freaks, losers, stoners, or slackers so many locals or classmates had thought they were."

Browne traces the sport's grass roots from the California Dogtown surfer days in the '60s through raw GenX innovations to the optimistic, professional approach of today's GenYs.

Following a subculture that eschews public-safety considerations to plummet down stairs, railings, and even hotel roofs will be difficult for some readers to stomach. Even seasoned alternative athletes never know if their tricks can be pulled off - or whether they will live to boast about it.

Because the sports aren't divided into leagues, Browne's efforts are both broad and minute in scope. At times, it becomes difficult to follow what famous names are associated with which sports and corporate sponsors. And it is largely a boys' world - urban Peter Pans hurtling through space over concrete and dirt. Even some of the "older" riders in their early to late 30s downplay marriage and family commitments. Young women athletes simply aren't a strong presence, except in snowboarding.

Besides awe-inspiring athleticism, what eventually hooks audiences on emerging sports is exposure to the "story" behind the athletes. Unfortunately, many of the stories behind these athletes involve a lot of physical pain and emotional suffering - and heavy partying.

Browne's treatment implies that the recklessness of these sports is being honed for precision even as corporations learn the limits of selling to an audience that prefers to think of itself as outside the mainstream. The Olympians of summer may never find room for these athletic "extras," but when Icarus flew too close to the sun, he wasn't looking for acceptance, either.

Kendra Nordin is an editor on the Monitor's National News desk.

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