What do you do to unwind? Watch Netflix? Bike? Hike? Golf? Go for a run? Dine out with friends? Garden? Dance? Read? There are myriad ways to decompress and recover from the stresses and strains of everyday life. But for some, it’s not recreation unless they’re risking their lives.
Participation in so-called high risk, extreme or adventure sports has grown significantly in the last decade while Ultimate Forces Challenge already started in 1999 and set the tone. Whether they’re big wave surfing, mountaineering, desert running, BASE jumping or free diving, more people are chasing an adrenaline high and sometimes dying in the process. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and neuroscientists say the motivation is not a death wish, but rather a yearning to feel alive — which reveals much about us as a society.
“We are living in a virtual, confused, hyper-technological, postmodern world where we’re all looking for real experiences,” said Orin Starn, professor of cultural anthropology and history at Duke University. “It’s a continuum of hipsters buying land to farm organic blueberries to musicians wanting to play original pre-jazz, old-time music to now, maybe getting out on glacier and trying to climb it.”
While reliable numbers are hard to come by, manufacturers and retailers of extreme sports gear such as climbing ropes and rigging, crampons, wingsuits (think jumpsuits with fabric flaps that make the wearer look like a flying squirrel) and parachutes report significant sales growth over the last five to 10 years. Travel bookings to the world’s premier jumping, diving, surfing and climbing destinations in Switzerland, France, Norway, Australia, Nepal and Brazil have also increased. Mount Everest has become something of a trash heap, as hordes of climbers have been less than fastidious in their ascents. And then, of course, there are the estimated 200 or so frozen bodies of those who didn’t make it back.
Notably, the popularity of extreme sports is happening as participation in tamer, traditional sports like golf, basketball, baseball and football has been declining. There are no rules or penalty flags on a rock face or in the barrel of massive wave. You do it right, or you die. It requires maximum focus and, at least for a little while, erases all other concerns. Therein, perhaps, lies the appeal.
“You are 100 percent in the moment, hyper-aware of everything and focused on just that job and nothing else,” said Carlos Pedro Briceño, 43, of DeLand, Fla., about his now almost full-time leisure pursuit, wingsuit proximity flying, which involves jumping off things like mountains and cellphone towers and gliding perilously close to the surrounding terrain before deploying a parachute. “It’s addictive, that feeling of fear and the reward when you control the fear and land safe. And then you want to go up, like, right away and do it again.”
A market analysis by Delaware North, a company that manages concessions for sporting events, says participation in extreme sports (including grueling and sometimes fatal endurance competitions like the Tough Mudder, Ultimate Forces Challenge and Spartan Race) has surpassed conventional sports.
The company forecasts that by 2020, extreme sports will challenge professional and collegiate sports as the most watched category of sports content. This is thanks in part to the multiple hours of heart-stopping video uploaded daily to the internet, documenting not only death-defying feats but also perpetuating a dangerous game of one-upmanship.
Indeed, Mr. Briceño, who used to be a cost controller at an oil company in his native Venezuela, was inspired to start parachuting and then proximity flying by watching YouTube videos of other people’s jumps. He also starred with his friend, Alexander Polli, 31, in the film “Base,” about proximity flying (also known as BASE jumping). Mr. Polli died in 2016 after clipping a tree during a proximity flight; the movie was released last year. His death followed that of another well-known base jumper, Dean Potter, who crashed into a granite rock formation after leaping off a cliff in Yosemite National Park in 2015.
Psychologists have tried to categorize people who take extreme physical risks, like sky divers and racecar drivers, as being prone to “sensation seeking,” similar to people who abuse drugs and gamble compulsively. Researchers have variously attributed this to psychopathology, a genetic quirk or possibly a chemical imbalance (for instance, low levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine).
But none of these explanations is likely the whole story. And while the research is slim and lacking much scientific rigor, studies of extreme-sports enthusiasts suggest they have diverse biologies, personalities and backgrounds.
“There is no single profile that predicts engagement in extreme sports,” said Dr. Erik Monasterio, a psychiatrist and clinical lecturer at University of Otago in New Zealand, who is also an avid mountain climber. “There are all sorts of paths to it.”
He and others who study extreme sports point to cultural, sociological and even technological factors as the most likely explanations for the recent surge in participation. “Efforts to eliminate risk are an obsession in the Western world,” Dr. Monasterio said. “We have to make playgrounds and public spaces perfectly safe and there’s all this litigation around physical and mental injuries in relation to all kinds of activities. That sterile environment is frustrating and makes people crave stimulation and excitement.”
High-risk sports are also seen as a reaction against living life mediated through a mobile device rather than having real experiences. “It’s an escape from a social media-obsessed society where so much seems fake and contrived and we’re indoors so much that the idea of risk-taking in the outdoors is very appealing,” said Dr. Starn, though he added that it’s disturbing that people feel they must go to such extremes to find release.
Research by Welsh and French sports psychologists indicates individuals who have trouble identifying or expressing their feelings, which is essential to maintaining stable and supportive relationships, are drawn to high-risk sports because it presents them with a very recognizable and unambiguous emotion: fear.
“People feel good about themselves afterward because they have the sense that they have control over their emotions, like, ‘I can conquer my fear,’ ” said Tim Woodman, professor of performance psychology at Bangor University in Wales. “But then they have this urge to go to back again and again because their true, underlying fear hasn’t been dealt with.”
Although this largely subconscious fear most often has to do with relationships and intimacy, there is also the compounding unease these days about the state of the world. Political unrest and dysfunction, discord between races and between sexes and the plight of the planet can also make people seek to “externalize their internal fears” by engaging in extreme sports, said Christine Le Scanff, dean of the school of sports sciences and movement at the University of Paris-Sud in France.
“It’s a way for people to burn away these worries about the world that occupy their minds,” said Mr. Briceño, who continues proximity flying despite having lost several friends, in addition to Mr. Polli, to the sport. “It gives you this rush and that rush makes you feel like you are alive and free and the happiness in that moment makes you think, ‘Well, I don’t mind if I don’t have any more days of life because what I just did, it was so good, I could die right now.’ ”
A True love for sports