I walked down Wall Street with a friend of mine yesterday evening. As we approached the street corner at College, my friend, who saw a Sprague Hall balcony hanging over the street, shouted out: “Oh, a balcony! Let’s climb all the way up there!” To which I responded: “No, dearest friend-of-mine, I shan’t do anything of the sort. If there were perhaps a staircase up which one could ascend, then I might be so inclined as to have a go. But there isn’t. So I won’t. I’m not a spider, you know.”
I thought a moment about this particular conversation. Then, I made some important conclusions.
Humans can be divided into two groups: those who seek height, speed and danger, and those who don’t. My friend falls into the former category, and I the latter. It’s not as though I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself once I reached the balcony, but I just didn’t have the desire to go. Yet many do.
This truth has been acknowledged by the greater sports community in which we live. For instance, there is an entire grouping of sports known as “Extreme Sports,” the main purpose of which is to test the human body under large amounts of specialized physical pressure. Sports that fall under this category include, for example, BASE jumping, paintballing, paragliding and wing walking.
Wing walking is when you move out onto the wing of airborne plane. I didn’t know what that was called either. I thought something like that was just called insane.
I have paintballed before, but it ended poorly when I, an irresponsible 12-year-old at the time, misfired and clopped my buddy right in the face. He was so upset that we ended up having to dissolve the acquaintance. A mess, indeed.
One of the attractions of an extreme sport is the anticipation of a so-called “adrenaline rush.” The actual physical high that the body experiences under the pressure of the sport results from an increased level of dopamine. Dopamine is a pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter that reinforces and encourages the activity that led to its increase. After linking this effect with a particular extreme activity, the body anticipates and craves the reward of a dopamine increase. Thus, you become hooked.
The pleasure achieved in acts of extreme physical exertion is not the only lure for participants. These sports — hang gliding, bouldering and bossaball included — attempt to master environments that would otherwise be hostile or inhospitable to humans. The main idea behind extreme sports is that every environment can and will be made more intense and undesirable. Simple skating becomes “aggressive skating” — for stunts and tricks — and waterskiing goes “barefoot” — for no particular reason at all. For action sports athletes, if it’s comfortable, then it’s not extreme. So, fix it!
Tests of endurance, flexibility and concentration, both mental and physical, are carried out by subjecting the body to abnormal stimulants. For instance: Why play just plain, old, stinky volleyball — a normal athletic stimulant — when you can combine it with martial arts, soccer and a trampoline and play bossaball? I’m sure you’ve never tried it before. It may look a little overblown, clunky and ridiculous with the inflatable chambers and giant-sized netting, but it’s huge in Brazil.
In the last 20 years, extreme sports have banded together and recognized themselves as an inherently different breed of sport. Prior to the 1980s, the sports had no global recognition or unity. Football, baseball and basketball had their national leagues; the Olympic sports had their Olympics. Spelunkers, scuba divers and flowboarders had to fend for themselves.
The term “extreme sport” didn’t even exist before the late 1980s. It was popularized by sporting goods suppliers like Patagonia, The North Face and Columbia in attempts to add a new dimension to their outdoorsy marketing endeavors. But once BMX bikes, snowboarding companies and skaters hijacked the term, the entire significance of “extreme” changed. It would now be associated with youth, urban-dwelling skater culture and hard-rock music.
From that day forward, despite the fact that snowboarding and skiing can be equally dangerous, snowboarding — because of its entire associated image — became way more extreme. Squares skied; rockers snowboarded. Obvi.
The very first X-games, a competition devoted entirely to action sports, was held in 1995. Then, it was known as the Extreme Games competition and took place in Providence, R.I. It was largely focused on making these sports accessible through the television. Watching the X-games in the 90s was like watching a troupe of magicians and wizards flying in and out of the time-space continuum. As the new audience was subjected to a mega, triple, beasty turn-around on a Kiteboard going 50 miles an hour, willingly suspending disbelief was a necessity.
Ghost riding — sadly not a part of the X-games — is equally unbelievable. According to Wikipedia, in order to “Ghost ride the whip” or “ghost,” one must place a vehicle in neutral and allow it to idle such that the driver and passengers may exit while the car is in motion. Upon exiting, the driver and passengers are supposed to dance around the car, and on the roof and hood. Where can I sign up for the IM ghostin’ team?
Alas! In the 21st century, even though we’ve all become more cautious, the “X” in extreme doesn’t seem so frightening. We’re always looking for new frontiers, but our jaded youth seems so unimpressed. “Where’s the fun?” they ask. “Where’s the danger?” If my friend and I had scaled the side of Sprague Hall last night, would anyone have really cared enough to be impressed? Probably not. As a result of my realization, I’ve become disillusioned with the whole idea myself. Try and tell me you’ve been to the top of Harkness and scaled down the side; I’m liable to yawn a little and shrug it off.
Charles Gariepy is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. His column appears on Wednesday.