With the thought of making a grand entrance to a masquerade party
in London in 1760, the inventor Joseph Merlin strapped onto his
feet a pair of metal-wheeled boots and rolled into the
festivities while playing a violin. Joe did not have a full grasp
of how to control his new invention, however, and he crashed,
Stooge-like, into an expensive mirror that covered the entire
length of one wall, thereby making a bid to become Western
Civilization's first extreme athlete.
In today's extreme world, of course, crashing through a plate of
glass would be the object, preferably after skating onto the wing
of a hovering airplane and executing a backward somersault or
two. But let us give Merlin his props. Just as there had to be
Julia Child before there was Emeril Lagasse, and Vin Scully
before Dick Vitale, so did there have to be Joseph Merlin before
there was Tony Hawk. The journey to extremity begins with one
small step--and perhaps a pratfall or two.
And so, as we prepare for the cacophonous symphony of
earsplitting motorcycle engines, deafening heavy metal music and
overheated, overhyping announcers that will accompany the ninth
X Games, in Los Angeles from Aug. 14 to 17, we stop to consider
how we got where we got.
And where is that exactly?
To be sure, the X Games are still Ex, as in Extreme. Though much
of the appeal of auto racing is the imminent possibility that
someone will be seriously hurt, that sport is loath to market its
dangerous aspects. Not the X Games, which love to trumpet
alarming news. Motocross rider "Mad" Mike Jones got only halfway
around on a backflip! Clifford Adoptante, the Flyin' Hawaiian,
broke his femur! That is the kind of crawl that appears in the
corner of the event's website these days.
Yet in some strange way the X Games--and extreme sports in
general--have moved away from the edge, which is invariably what
happens when corporations elbow their way into the action and
begin throwing around money. Extreme becomes mainstream. The big
news at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, besides alleged vote
fixing by figure skating judges, was the impact made in the
snowboarding event by athletes once considered outsiders. Then,
too, the X Games themselves carry a Roman numeral appellation,
this one being X Games IX. Dude, can you really be extreme when
you're wearing red, white and blue and naming your games like
This absorption into the corporate culture--some would say
co-opting by the corporate culture--is not unique to extreme
sports, of course. Professional football seems a lot less extreme
when played in a venue called M&T Bank Stadium or Network
Associates Coliseum...though a skateboarder trying to execute a
960 might reasonably argue that the NFL--hell, even the XFL--is
not extreme at all. But the mainstream press, not to be confused
with the extreme press, delightedly delivered its full arsenal of
irony last year when it became known that the United Professional
Skaters Association (a group of more than 70 elite skateboarders
of all styles) had met with Gene Upshaw, the executive director
of the National Football League Players Association, to look into
the possibility of unionizing--and when a bunch of skaters at X
Games VIII in Philadelphia threatened to organize a boycott
because ESPN had signed away their rights for an IMAX movie.
Extreme sports at their various genesis points were sometimes
happy accidents, sometimes the children of invention, sometimes
the offshoot of necessity, but they were not product for a
television culture or a potential revenue stream for Red Bull
(next page). Ralph Samuelson, for example, didn't know what would
happen when, in 1922, he strapped two eight-foot-by-nine-inch
pine boards to his feet and took off behind a motorboat on a lake
in Minnesota. He survived and became generally regarded as the
father of waterskiing. Skis weren't exciting enough for a
17-year-old waterbug named A.G. Hancock 25 years later. During a
family vacation in Winter Haven, Fla., he decided to ski without
skis, instructing the boat to build up speed so he could glide
barefoot across the surface of the water.
No camera crew accompanied two weekend warriors from Barstow,
Calif.--Michael Pelky, an accountant, and Brian Schubert, a truck
driver--when they parachuted off Yosemite's El Capitan one summer
day in 1966. Swirling winds pushed them both back into the rock
wall, but bruised and battered, they survived and helped launch
the extreme sport of BASE jumping, in which parachutists leap
from any of four fixed objects--Buildings, Antenna Towers, Spans
(usually a bridge) or Earth (a formation such as El Capitan). A
Muskegon, Mich., man named Sherman Poppen was looking for an
activity that would keep his young daughters occupied so his
pregnant wife could get some me-time when he nailed two wooden
skis together and called it a Snurfer. Thus was the snowboard
born 37 years ago. Poppen said he shed a tear when three
Americans swept the Olympic halfpipe in Salt Lake City.
An ulterior motive--fame--sometimes attended these pioneers.
Bruce Brown made his name in the movie business with his film
Endless Summer, which brought surfing to the masses. And the
perilous Paris-to-Dakar Rally, celebrated for the dangers facing
competitors along a 5,863-mile route, much of it through desert,
was the brainchild of a publicist, a Frenchman named Thierry
Sabine. But anyone who makes his living by typing on a keyboard
should be slow with snide comments about those, past or present,
who make their living on the edge. The fact that the cameras are
rolling and the fat cats are shelling out money does not make it
any easier for, say, Mike Metzger to land a ramp-to-dirt backflip
on a motorcycle (as he did last July) or for any of those yet
unsuccessful skateboarders to add 60 degrees to the first-ever
backside 900, which Hawk landed three years ago at the X Games in
It does, however, make it more worth their while.
B/W PHOTO: CULVER PICTURES (ICARUS) FOREFEATHER Was Icarus the patron saint of X games ...
COLOR PHOTO: JOE JENNINGS ...or was he just mythology's answer to the skysurfer?