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This is a wonderful time in which we live, when hobbyists and
daredevils and lumberjacks and even ballroom dancers can all
claim a piece of the programming pie. All it takes is an
activity that produces a winner and fits into a 30-minute
format. Thank you, cable. Now anything that's slightly dangerous
can make for a viewing experience, activity legitimized as a
form of athletics by a TV listing. Those kids in baggy shorts
sliding along the top of a park bench on a skateboard? Sport!
Those fools jumping off a bridge with ropes around their ankles?
Sport! A guy falling out of an airplane, camera affixed to his
noggin, who is videotaping a similarly falling partner stunting
on a board? By the time you read this, there probably will be
competing leagues.

Most of these nontraditional sports, some of which are being
showcased by ESPN and ESPN2's current Extreme Games extravaganza
(continuing through Saturday), started innocently enough. When
we did them as kids, we called Did you ever think,
as you pedaled your Schwinn over a dirt ramp, that someday it
would be called a BMX event and that prize money would be
available on a cutthroat tour? Or that roller-skating down the
sidewalk (and pitching onto your forehead at every crack in the
pavement) would evolve into in-line skating, a
more-than-$900-million business with an estimated 20 million
participants, maybe half a dozen magazines and a fashion
industry behind it? But because this is such a wonderful time we
live in, nothing that's truly fun needs to stand on its own, not
as long as it can reach 65.6 million homes. Now fun can be
franchised, marketed and, above all, sponsored, and 400 Extreme
Games athletes can gather in Rhode Island and elsewhere in New
England to compete in nine sports for $377,900 in prize money.

The Extreme Games are a kind of election for us viewers. Do we
anoint barefoot water-ski jumping as the sport of the 1990s or
return it to the show-offs at SeaWorld? How about sport
climbing? Does it deserve a network contract, or does it go back
to the guys and gals who watched Cliffhanger one time too many?
Hard choices loom. Maybe after 46 hours of this, some kind of
vote will be in, and we'll have a pro windsurfing loop. Or maybe
all our children will grow up wanting to be bungee jumpers. Or
maybe it will be street luge, the only kind of downhill racing
we know of in which a contestant, harking back to the sport's
uncomplicated, butt-boarding, neighborhood-street origins, can
say, "Oh, I've knocked on plenty of doors of moving trucks."

Surely more of these alternative sports will catch on and cash
in. It's interesting to watch this frontier advance, as the need
for fresh sport turns to a kind of organized stuntwork,
sanitized and telegenic. Interesting, but maybe a little less
fun. There no doubt are kids who prefer the unorganized version
in which they sail casually down the street two inches above
blurred asphalt, knocking on truck doors.

COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE MCGOWAN Surf's UpHigh over Texas, Amy Baylie-Haass uses her board and webbed gloves to ride the air waves while enjoying one of the increasingly popular "extreme sports," skysurfing (page 42). [T of C]

COLOR PHOTO:MIKE POWELLOnce a dodger of L.A. traffic, street-luge whiz Bob Pererya zips by at 70 mph.

COLOR PHOTO:ERIK AEDER In the wet world of windsurfer Bjorn Dunkerbeck, sometimes it's bottom's up. [Bjorn Dunkerbeck in mid-air while windsurfing]

COLOR PHOTO:CARL YARBROUGHMissy (Missile) Giove launches her mountain bike downhill at speeds of as high as 60 mph.COLOR PHOTO:MIKE MCGOWANHer Airness: 13,000 feet up, Gary Haass tapes wife-teammate Amy Baylie-Haass skysurfing.