Shredding Stereotypes: Modern Perceptions of Extreme Sports

By Cameron Livermore

As humanity has continued to evolve and adapt to the rise of new technology, so have our pastimes.  In the late twentieth century, the combination of sport and technology began to give birth to a new breed of recreation: the extreme sports.  Simple stick and ball games have changed over time with the advent of better equipment, but this new breed of sports is different in that the participants rely on specialized technology to achieve feats that the human body is ill-equipped for on its own.

Skateboarders reworked the existing technology of frictionless, high-speed travel that previously resided amongst skiers, who in turn began to notice an invasion of younger people at their resorts mounted on snowboards.  The offroad motorcycle improved steadily in the last half of the century until it was capable of tolerating extreme force, giving athletes the ability to launch their two-wheeled machines off of dirt mounds and specialized metal ramps to astounding new heights and distances.  Many offshoots and evolutions of old sports were enhanced by new technology, adventurous minds, and the idea that there was plenty of territory left to conquer in the area of recreation.

However, these sports came as somewhat of a shock to an older, more traditional population.  Young skateboarders and surfers in the 1980s carried themselves with a radical flair, both on and off their boards, evoking both excitement and outrage from the established authorities.  Snowboarders descended in droves on established ski resorts, and the patrons there reacted with disdain and sometimes outrage, regarding the new form of sport as an unwieldy and dangerous adaptation of their own.  Motocross riders watched skeptically as a segment of professional racers, disillusioned with sponsorship and professional racing politics, split off from the racing scene and began performing aerial tricks on their bikes. 

The general attitude of disdain evinced by a population that grew up playing more traditional sports fueled the new breed’s rebellious spirits, until many of them broke with societal norms in their quest to shock the majority with dangerous maneuvers and equally dangerous lifestyles.  Their attitude of rebelliousness was arguably necessary to keep their lifestyle from being affected by the forces compelling them to “get back in line,” as it were.  These deviant sports were viewed by the general public as the pastime of deviant citizens, and when one is stereotyped unjustly, they may exemplify that stereotype to validate their labeler’s suspicions, and in turn be somewhat validated by that irony.

Unfortunately, the people who stereotyped extreme sports began to see all participants of these sports as deviants, when in fact the second wave of athletes had already risen.  Younger people, inspired and curious about these new sports, had begun to take up the mantle of their older, wilder counterparts.  These newer participants dreamed of professionalism, of making a living doing what they loved, as other professional athletes had in the past.  On their rise to such a level, however, they encountered roadblock after roadblock: laws making their sports actual crimes, facilities banning their new form of sport, resorts denying entrance to their kind.  Extreme sports were once considered a harmful and destructive fad, and only recently has the general public begun to grasp the merits of both the sports and athletes involved.  What was once perceived as an offensive pursuit is becoming recognized for the true spectacle it is: one of hard work, dedication, blood, sweat, and tears.

There is no doubt that these new sports can carry painful and even deadly consequences for their athletes.  “I always call extreme sports good for business,” says Dr. William Roberts, president of the American College of Sports Medicine.  “They produce injuries that generate more income for me than any other sport.” (Tresinowski et al. 1).

Injuries are a fact of life for professionals in extreme sports.  Broken bones, bruises, even paralysis or death can result from mistimed trick or faulty equipment.  Why, then, do these athletes choose to risk life and limb in order to participate?  For most, the answer is simple.  These sports provide a feeling that cannot be obtained in any other way.  Adrenaline rushes, confidence in one’s ability, even spirituality are all attainable through extreme sports. 

Perhaps it was best summed up by big wave surfer Mike Parsons, in this quote from the book Being Extreme by Bill Gutman, Shawn Frederick, and John Butman:

“The ocean for me is a totally spiritual thing.  It doesn’t matter if it’s small or big surf, just being in it is the important thing.  It’s my place.  You can have all kinds of problems and worries, and the second I begin surfing, I’m completely focused on that and the rest of the world goes on hold.  It’s almost like someone going to church.  Without a doubt, the ocean is my church,” (99).

The rest of the world goes on hold for participants in extreme sports.  A skilled athlete must use every ounce of concentration, muscle memory, and attention they have to complete the maneuvers they attempt, and this allows for no distractions.  As a motocross rider myself, I can personally vouch for this “clean slate” feeling.  All of my worries, troubles and preoccupations evaporate the instant I soar off of the first jump on a motocross track.  My attention is focused entirely on the next set of obstacles; my mind makes infinite tiny decisions every second, and as I progress, its capacity to make these decisions increases.  A well trained extreme sports participant does not think; they simply react, and it is perhaps this channeling of the primal “fight or flight” instinct that can make the experience so entirely rewarding for us. 

Recent studies have helped to corroborate this, as they show that extreme sports athletes have higher sensation-seeking needs than the average person.  Sensation-seekers are people who desire to experience new and/or novel sensations, or experiences that are not present in the course of everyday life (Malkin and Rabinowitz 34).  Extreme sports provide the means to feel new things and experience unique sensations.  Perhaps this is part of the reason that so many young people are drawn to them; in a life consisting mainly of school and work, in an environment where sexual urges are often repressed or discouraged, extreme sports offer young people a way to feel very alive.

These sports are also gaining athletes’ participation due to the dramatic visual effects achieved in their execution.  Risking life and limb results in spectacular displays of human beings leaping huge distances in a single bound, showing new degrees of finesse and skill, and generally performing feats that were once thought to be impossible (if they were thought of at all).  The consequential increased video coverage results in more viewers wanting to try new things.  “People are increasingly challenging themselves with activities which place their lives totally in their own hands and moving away from safer, more regulated activities,” says James Stewart, in his article “Taking the Plunge,” which appears in the Institute of Internal Affairs Public Review. 

Perhaps in a society where new laws are constantly made, old laws are rarely repealed, and people follow a somewhat set course of school, college, then work, we are simply beginning to yearn for a little chaos in our lives; or perhaps it is the feeling of controlling one’s fate that results from flying through the air or sliding down a rail that is compelling more people to try these sports.  As Stewart says, “These sports have less of a competitive feel about them, in many cases the only benefits come from the warm, fuzzy feeling one gets by beating one’s previous best or just by improving one’s skills”(1).  That “warm, fuzzy feeling” is synonymous with control.  As an avid motocross rider and snowboarder myself, I know this firsthand; the feeling of being in control, even when traveling at forty miles an hour while twenty feet above solid ground, is intoxicating and has increased my confidence in all areas of life.

This feeling may best be described as one of sheer self reliance and independence. Team sports, on the other hand, involve more of a feeling of unity and cooperation. Often times, a player will have to sit out large parts of the actual contest, such as in football, baseball, and basketball.  The notorious bench has no place in any extreme sport, however.  There is no one to catch a BMX rider if he fails to clear a twenty foot dirt jump, and no one to step in for a skateboarder after he’s fallen off of a rail onto concrete.  Extreme sports athletes rely entirely on their own proficiency, dedication, and natural talent.  This can lend the athlete a very powerful sense of satisfaction; when a new goal is met or a new trick performed, the feeling of accomplishment is not divided amongst a group.  After successfully reaching a higher level of performance, the confidence and sense of achievement gained provides more than enough motivation to continue pushing the limits.

I can testify on this point personally.  Recently I participated in a large desert off-road motorcycle ride.  A newcomer joined our camp this year: a twenty year old that had ridden off-road motorcycles only briefly at age twelve.  He brought boots and a helmet, but no motorcycle; we had four bikes and only three riders in our group, so we let him try our bikes out.  The person in question rode more than anybody else that weekend.  He progressed from barely competent in the high-speed, three foot wide trails to a respectable desert rider in only a few days.  After each ride, he would reminisce excitedly at the camp fire about overcoming a new obstacle, jumping over bumps at higher speeds, and learning how to take corners quickly.  Each achievement boosted his confidence and fueled his desire to learn more.  In this way, extreme sports can be an addictively satisfying pastime.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the rider I met in the desert had his bike taken away at a young age after his dad crashed and injured his knee on an old off-road motorcycle.  Many parents still see extreme sports as a serious threat to their children and will not allow them to participate in anything of the kind.  In an article titled “Flying High, Falling Hard” from People Magazine, a mother from Wisconsin is quoted, saying: “I don’t shelter my kids, but I’m not comfortable with sports with high injury rates.  I want them to be safe,” (Tresinowski et al. 64).  This is a perfectly logical argument; however, not very many children are perfectly logical themselves.

Forbidding a child from participating in an extreme sport can increase their desire to do so as a form of rebellion, as I witnessed in the desert recently.  That particular person was responsible.  He wore safety gear and had fourteen experienced riders to coach him and watch him, but still crashed at high speeds twice over the weekend.  Had he been a bit more reckless and a bit more motivated to rebel, he may have been more poorly equipped and could have been badly injured.  Unfortunately, this is often the case.  Young children imitating professionals they’ve seen on television without parental guidance or proper safety equipment are much more likely to sustain debilitating injuries.

A better approach is given in the same article in People by another mother, Michele Soven of Longwood, Florida.  Her son is an avid wakeboarder.  Wakeboarders are towed on specially designed boards behind boats, jumping the wake thrown up by the boat’s propeller and performing tricks.  “From the beginning, my husband and I were very involved,” says Michele.  “Every injury he got, I would find out how and why it happened, to prevent it from occurring again.” (Tresinowski et al. 66) 

Her son Phillip has sustained multiple injuries, the worst of which he suffered while trying to jump onto a long, wooden rail floating in the water, an obstacle wakeboarders call a “slider.”  Phillip caught his board on the edge of the obstacle, shattered his nose, and split open his face.  It took 58 stitches and two reconstructive surgeries to repair the damage, but Michele never once thought of trying to take away Phillip’s wakeboarding privileges.  “It’s something he loves to do, so how can I forbid it?  If I did, it would be more likely that he’d do it without parental guidance,” said Michele (Tresinowski et al. 65).  This is a realistic viewpoint.  Extreme sports are definitely dangerous, but risk can be minimized with proper guidance, safety gear, and involvement from experienced athletes and parents alike.

Samah Boulis and Andreas Rehm, Orthopedic surgeons from the United Kingdom, share this viewpoint in their article Our Experience with Motocross Accidents in Children: Patterns of Injuries and Outcomes.  The article details the types of injuries common to motocross riders, and offers the opinion that the implementation of helmet and protective gear laws would substantially minimize the injuries that occur in motocross riding and racing (1). 

While most if not all public motocross facilities do require riders to wear helmets, few go beyond that basic safety.  The additional stipulation that riders be required to wear protective boots, gloves, pants, jerseys, body armor, and neck braces would substantially reduce motocross related injuries.  Again, I speak from my own experience; I have never broken a bone while riding motorcycles, and have ridden one thousand hours or more-always with the proper safety gear. After many high speed and high altitude crashes, I have still never suffered anything worse than cuts and scratches.  My safety gear has been destroyed and replaced many times, saving my body in the process.

The public has begun to recognize that with such safety gear, extreme sports can be participated in with some degree of safety.  Extreme sports were once thought of as something close to a death sentence, even with gear, but that has been shown to be untrue in recent studies of sports related injuries.  The percentage of people injured in extreme sports is often the same or even smaller than the percentage of people injured in conventional sports such as football.  In a list that compiled the number of injuries based on the time spent playing or participating in a sport, the only extreme sport even close to the top of the list was snowboarding, ranked third behind boxing and football.  Skateboarding sits at twenty-second, and BMX biking at twenty-fourth (Tresinowski et al. 64). The myth that extreme sports resulted in more injuries than traditional sports has been effectively broken by professional researchers in a number of studies such as this one, and that data is trickling down to the public awareness with increasing momentum.  Parents are now becoming aware that their child is just as likely to break a bone while being tackled by a linebacker in a high school football game as they are to break one while jumping down a set of stairs on a skateboard.

Unfortunately, the average citizen’s change of perception is not always mirrored by official groups.  Signs proclaiming “No skateboarding, No bicycling, No rollerblading” are still a common sight in any city.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the outright ban on skateboarding that occurred in Philadelphia’s LOVE Park, a kind of Mecca for modern skateboarders.  Jeremy Nemeth’s paper Conflict, Exclusion, Relocation: Skateboarding and Public Space details this incident.  Policy makers in Philadelphia decided to restructure the park in time for a citywide festival, both physically and legislatively.  The legislative portion instituted an around-the-clock police patrol in and around the park to enforce a new zero-tolerance ban on skateboarding.  If any citizen was caught skateboarding, they would have to pay a three hundred dollar fine and could even be imprisoned.  Skateboarding became a crime (297). 

This did not sit well with the resident skateboarders of Philadelphia, who assembled for a march on city call on October fifth, 2003.  They accomplished nothing with their mass protests, however, so instead began a campaign.  Non-profit groups formed, dedicated to regaining the right to skate in LOVE Park.  After a long stalemate with city officials, a bargain was struck; the city would build a street-style skate park for skaters to use.  While this satisfied some, many skateboarders continue to fight for their right to skate at LOVE Park.  In a newspaper poll taken in 2004, ninety-two percent of two thousand resident Philadelphians polled supported the skateboarder’s fight to return to LOVE Park (Nemeth 304).  This instance suggests that the average citizen is starting to accept extreme sports, and again illustrates that institutions are not always doing the same.

Some might argue that such laws are made due to the damage caused to public property by extreme sports.  While it is true that skateboarding and BMX riding can damage public architecture, it is not true that the athletes involved are generally careless of this fact.  Philadelphia city officials estimated that skateboarding had caused approximately sixty-thousand dollars worth of damage to LOVE Park.  Shortly thereafter, the city gave the park an eight-hundred-thousand dollar facelift (Nemeth 301). This should adequately answer the question of whether or not the city had the funds to deal with such intense use by skateboarders.  If the city could afford to spend eight-hundred-thousand dollars to update the park, they could afford sixty- thousand dollars to repair it. 

However, the skateboarding community went even further to show their dedication to regaining the privilege of skating in LOVE Park.  A skateboard shoe manufacturer, DC Shoes, offered to pay one-hundred-thousand dollars each year for ten years to the city for maintenance of LOVE Park if skaters were allowed to return.  The city refused (Nemeth 303).  How is it that city officials claimed they refused skateboarders the privilege to skate based on the damage the sport caused, yet continued that refusal even after paying roughly thirteen times the estimated cost of the damage to update the park?  How can the cost of damage, at sixty-thousand dollars, when compared to one-hundred-thousand dollars a year for ten years from DC shoes, be considered a legitimate reason to continue excluding skaters from LOVE Park?  It seems that not all prejudice against extreme sports has faded with time.  Skaters continue to lobby for access to LOVE Park, and the city continues to refuse them (Nemeth 304).

Skateboarders have a similar complaint in Bronx, New York.  Street skating is nearly a crime in the Bronx, making it very difficult for skaters to progress and practice what they love to do.  “...We aren’t harming anyone, and we aren’t doing anything bad-just skateboarding,” says Chris Seise, a Bronx skateboarder (Mcdonald 1).  There is a park in the area called Mulally’s, but the park requires that a skater’s parents sign a waver before they are allowed to skate (Mcdonald 1).  This makes access difficult for the skaters whose parents do not approve of their child’s chosen sport, and may lead to more illegal street-skating by children under eighteen years old who cannot use the park.  If the city would provide a public skate park utilizing street obstacles like benches and handrails, the unnecessary commitment of city resources to the prevention of street skating could be stopped.

Another less harmful discrimination is often perpetrated by participants of “classic” or “ball” sports, such as football, baseball, and basketball.  In an issue of Sports Illustrated, a journalist asked many athletes whether they considered skateboarding to be a sport or not.  “Hell no.  It’s a recreational activity, like fishing,” said Blue Jays outfielder Jose Cruz (Albert and Mravic 28).

Other athletes showed similar scorn.  “They’re trying to make everything a sport,” said Marlins infielder Dave Berg.  “Why not grocery bagging at Albertson’s?  These days they even call putt-putt golf a sport.  That’s just trailer-trash activity.  Sure it takes skill to do these things, but is it a sport?” (Albert and Mravic 28).  It is true that many extreme sports athletes view ball-sport players similarly, and that the rivalry is far from one-sided.  It all seems to be a case of conditioning.  Whatever activity is done and watched in the household is often an activity the child will later consider a sport.  Certainly extreme sports and team sports are both valid athletic pursuits.

As the public demand for facilities in which to practice extreme sports grows, some institutions are finally responding adequately.  In the journal Parks and Recreation, Kelly Bastone cited many such instances in her article “Going to Extremes.”  Kelly writes that “Directors and managers elsewhere have also received requests to go beyond team sports and provide opportunities to skate, bike, climb, paddle, ski, and even surf...” (Bastone 60).  Some institutions have chosen not to take the “LOVE Park” route, and have risen above and beyond to provide safe, well-designed facilities for athletes.  Many cities are feeling the demand and responding aptly. 

Reno, Nevada built a whitewater rafting park on the Truckee River, the town of Steamboat Springs in Colorado runs a community ski and snowboard slope called Howlsen’s Hill, and city Officials in Chattanooga granted permission to a group of rock-climbers when asked if they could begin climbing a limestone support column on one of the city’s historic bridges (Bastone 63-65).  Many cities are welcoming extreme sports athletes with open arms.  Word spreads quickly in the athletes’ world, and once a town is known as a good destination for a sport, its economy reaps the benefits as adrenaline-seeking tourists spend their money while visiting (Bastone 64).

In Kelly Bastone’s article, one city stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. Oklahoma City’s director of parks and recreation, Wendel Wisenhunt, is quoted, saying “"We were hearing that our emphasis on stick-and-ball sports just wasn't serving everyone, particularly the younger population."  Wisenhunt responded to the need for extreme-sports facilities in dramatic fashion; in 2005, at a cost of seven-hundred-thousand dollars, the Mat Hoffman Action Sports Park opened in Oklahoma.  Oklahoma City’s director of parks and recreation worked closely with professional BMX rider and native Oklahoman Mat Hoffman to create a facility that would allow beginners to progress safely while simultaneously challenging veteran athletes (Bastone 2).

This is approach to building facilities is by far the best, as simple logic shows. A dangerous, boring skate park is a bad investment, but not many public officials have thought to go as far as to seek out the input of professional athletes to help build the courses.  The necessity of doing so is obvious, as extreme-sports facilities are products of creativity and have no set boundaries, obstacles, demarcations, or other mandatory features.  A football field is a football field, and can be duplicated rather easily, but skate parks, motocross tracks, and other extreme-sports arenas are unique facilities, each with their own obstacles, safeguards, unique attractions, and creators.  If the city official overseeing the project acquires the help of a professional athlete to design a safe, fun, and challenging course, they are likely to see much larger attendance numbers.  The local economy again feels a pleasant surge as athletes spend money in the park’s proximity, which can transform the cost of the park’s creation into a profit, in time (Bastone 63).

Another factor that is helping win over officials is the changing perception of extreme sports participants as a type of people.  Skaters, particularly, were once associated with illegal activity such as drug use and vandalism; that association is now rapidly dissolving as kids and teens campaign for the addition of skate parks to their city and take pride in keeping the parks safe and legal once they are constructed (Weller 567).  Once looked upon as apathetic deviants, skaters are now being respected as socially active people with strong voices in their community (Weller 568).  As more and more athletes practice their sports without participating in the unsavory activities that were once associated with those sports, more non-athletes are beginning to see them as respectable public figures. 

As extreme sports continue to grow in popularity, people are beginning to accept this new view of the athletes, and are realizing that extreme sports may not truly be as bad as the old stereotypes implied they were.  City officials are helping to build new parks, parents are more likely to let their children choose to ride a skateboard or motorcycle, and television networks are scrambling to provide more coverage of high-flying bikers and boarders.  While the public’s increased exposure to extreme sports still far from matches the popularity of older, more well-know sports, the stigma once attached to athletes participating in them is quickly eroding.  For the athletes in question, this acceptance has come somewhat late, but is nevertheless deeply appreciated.  No person enjoys persecution, much less so for performing difficult and skillful feats of athleticism, and extreme sports athletes are no exception.  As ESPN’s X Games grows, Mountain Dew’s Dew Tour appears on network television, and other forums for extreme sports are piped into America’s living rooms, the true athletic and mental fortitude displayed in extreme sports is beginning to be so readily observable that outdated stereotypes can no longer be applied.  More cities are giving in to the demand for skate parks and other facilities for extreme sports athletes to use, and more children than ever are idolizing motocross riders or snowboarders instead of baseball or basketball players.  The former black sheep of the sports world are slowly becoming the main attraction.

 

 

Works Cited

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Cameron Livermore is an aspiring author, journalist, and poet.