Overview of the CQ Researcher Issue on "Extreme Sports"

By Marcia Clemmitt, April 3, 2009

Canadian teenager Dean Lewis’ biggest mistake may have been getting into the ring in Winnipeg with a more experienced fighter. Just 18, he had a lot to learn about the “extreme” sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), which allows combatants to use potentially deadly moves from kickboxing, jujitsu, sumo and other combat techniques. After a series of blows to his head and body, the young man collapsed in the ring with brain swelling and a severe concussion. As his lungs filled with blood, ringside doctors put a breathing tube down his throat; Lewis suffered several seizures on the way to the hospital.

It was “the bloodiest fight I have ever seen live,” said Keith Grienke, who blogs about MMA at cageplay.com. An “illegal upkick to the nose” was the blow that ultimately felled Lewis, Grienke said.

After recovering, Lewis said he wanted to start training again as soon as possible, but that isn’t going to happen. According to one of his trainers, Winnipeg MMA fighter Rodrigo Monduruca, Lewis “will never be able to fight again — ever.”

MMA is the most controversial of the many so-called extreme sports that have vaulted onto the national stage in recent decades.

While it is unquestionably the bloodiest, it is far from alone. Controversy also has dogged other extreme sports such as snowboarding, skateboarding, kayaking down waterfalls and BASE jumping — or parachuting from buildings, bridges and cliffs.

Extreme sports are generally defined as individual rather than team-oriented activities that athletes essentially invent by coloring outside the lines of the traditional sport world, often by attempting extreme feats or performing in unusual venues.

Critics argue that the sports are overly risky; that some, like skateboarding, damage property; and that many, like snowboarding, promote reckless, even thuggish, behavior. Moreover, they say spectators are attracted by the potential for severe injury and violence, and they scoff at the claim that the craving to watch “the bloodiest fight” is healthy But many athletes say their events are mislabeled as “extreme,” preferring the term “action sports” for pursuits that they say are more about skills than thrills.

“I . . . have a problem with it being a ‘sport’ just because someone defines it as a sport,” said Terri Mills, a planning commission member in West Valley City, Utah, where tighter MMA regulations are being considered out of concern that bouts may encourage brawls or other violence among spectators.

MMA’s skyrocketing popularity means that if states don’t regulate it, illegal — and potentially far more dangerous — bouts will proliferate, says Bernie Profato, executive director of the Ohio Athletic Commission, which regulates MMA in the state. The public is drawn to many sports, including NASCAR, because of a craving to witness risk and violence, and unregulated fights are the dangerous ones, says Profato. Before Ohio regulated MMA, unregulated fights occurred all over the state, but since 2005, when MMA became legalized and regulated in Ohio, the state hasn’t had a single unregulated event, he says. Regulated events require certified ring doctors, ban certain tactics and take other precautions.

Once considered a niche market, action sports are attracting growing interest from the biggest media names. The CBS television network raised eyebrows in 2008 when it announced plans to periodically broadcast MMA matches in prime time on Saturday nights. Also last year, NBC television expanded its action-sports broadcasts beyond competitions to include “lifestyle” coverage of top athletes, and ESPN launched a cluster of online sites to offer up-to-the-minute coverage of online sports from BMX to “freeskiing.”

The public’s rising interest in action sports comes from advertisers and TV sports channels that choose the most “extreme” images to sell products ranging from athletic shoes to soda.

They focus on “the adrenaline rush because that’s what sells to the couch potato,” says Dale Stuart, a clinical psychologist in Torrance, Calif., who is a seven-time world champion in freestyle skydiving, in which gymnastics tricks are performed during free fall.

“People are basically afraid of the unknown, and when they think about skydiving, for example, they think, ‘I’m going to be up there with no idea what to do,’ ” she says. They don’t realize that before jumping “divers spend a whole day with a coach,” learning what to do.

While risk is certainly an element in sports like skydiving, practitioners are “usually success-oriented people, aware of the risks and making conscious, thoughtful decisions about what they do,” Stuart says.

Action athletes generally do have “thrill-seeking” personalities, says Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Philadelphia’s Temple University, who coined the term Type T to describe such people. But many Type Ts are the opposite of reckless, Farley says. “Those who live prepare” for their sports, he says. “They don’t want to die. They want the challenges, the creativity, the risky experiences. So they prepare.”

Type Ts do push the envelope, not just in sports but in science and the arts, Farley says. And while some Type Ts push it in negative ways, such as by taking drugs or committing crimes, many others are society’s creators and innovators. “If we didn’t have these people, we’d be back in the cave,” Farley says.

Snowboarding has furnished many an extreme image to marketers, but that’s far from the full picture, according to Holly Thorpe, a snowboarder and lecturer in sport and leisure studies at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. There are more than 18.5 million snowboarders worldwide, ranging in age from 5 to 75, making “the notion of snowboarding as extreme [seem] obtuse,” she wrote.

Nevertheless, “with more than 75 percent of American snowboarders under the age of 24 and males constituting approximately 70 percent of all boarders, it is no wonder that stereotypes continue to abound,” Thorpe acknowledged.

Action sports like freestyle motocross — in which motorcycle riders do jumps and acrobatics — and whitewater kayaking do pose dangers, participants acknowledge.

While preparation is vital to most action sports, the situation will always throw unforeseen risk into the mix, such as a slippery surface, says Farley. Motorcycle stunt riders like Robbie Knievel — son of the legendary Evil Knievel — “practice over and over again, but at the moment of takeoff it’s always risky,” he says. “Very competent people die all the time doing things like climbing Mt. Everest.”

Freestyle skiing — skiing off an icy ramp in order to perform airborne acrobats — was banned as a competitive sport in the 1960s and ’70s because athletes falling from a five-story height while twisting and turning risked serious injury. But “this did not deter . . . athletes from training and competing unofficially” or prevent media coverage, said Kenneth P. Burres, a back surgeon in Montclair, Calif. Today, it’s an Olympic event, and standardized venues and equipment have reduced the injury rate, though high risk remains, he wrote.

“The fact that they’re called ‘extreme’ sports means, if you make a mistake, you die,” says Ron Watters, an adjunct professor of outdoor education at Idaho State University. In extreme climbing, for example, “the edge that you walk between life and death is a knife edge,” he says. Casual spectators can be tempted into danger if they fail to realize the people that make these highly entertaining DVDs of high-risk activities “did not just start doing the sport yesterday. They started out with teachers,” he says.

While media images of many action sports depict rugged individualism, teamwork is actually the order of the day and helps make sports safer, says Jay Young, a West Virginia-based writer and rock climber who runs the Web site rockclimbing.com. “It’s very common for a person to fall off a rock but very uncommon for them to hit the ground” because most people climb in groups, literally tied together, he says.

Progressing from marathon running to the even more extreme Ironman triathlon — a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon — “I actually find myself healthier,” says Taneen L. Carvell, president of a Washington, D.C., marketing firm, who completed her first Ironman nine days after turning 40. The multiple skills required of an Ironman athlete demand that “you know your body” and cross-train in a more balanced way than runners often do, she says. “You’re out there for 12 or 13 hours, not three,” as in a marathon, so you must be thoroughly healthy, she says.

“One of the nice things” about action sports like skateboarding “is that each kid can express himself at his own level,” without needing top skills just to stay in the game as a teenager, as is the case with many traditional sports like baseball, says John R. Ricciardi, Jr., president and founder of the New Jersey-based Action Sports Association, a nonprofit that aims to expand corporate, government and parental support for action sports. Most action sports “are healthy lifestyle habits” that one can pursue for decades, he says. Furthermore, “a lot of kids have problems at home, and these sports can be their salvation; my kids used the skateboard to work through their problems,” like their parents’ divorce, says Ricciardi.

Skateboarding “does cause minor property damage,” but that’s far from its essence, says Ocean Howell, a former professional skateboarder who is a writer and a graduate student in architectural history at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you see a kid going down the street, you may think he’s a thuggy jerk, but if he’s jumping on and off the curbs on a skateboard, making it look smooth, then that kid has a tremendous work ethic,” Howell says. “That kid is practicing an art form, and has an interest in doing something right.”

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