Taking Sports to the Extreme

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Mountain biking, helicopter skiing, river surfing, BASE jumping, waterfall kayaking, ice climbing and other extreme sports that put participants at risk of serious injury, even death, grow annually in popularity.

I know what you’re thinking, I thought it too: Why would anyone pursue activities so dangerous that you must sign a waiver absolving the organizers of all responsibility for a catastrophic accident? One small slip, a brief lapse of attention, and you’re history.

The traditional public perception is that “extreme sports participation is an unhealthy, pathological need for uncertainty, thrills and excitement,” Eric Brymer, an exercise specialist, wrote in 2010, when he was at Queensland University of Technology.

But is it really just about chasing an adrenaline rush? And are these action sports as dangerous to devoted participants as they seem on television and in YouTube videos?

Even watching the recent gruesome footage of the French Olympic gymnast Samir Ait Said, who broke his leg in Rio during a vault landing, can make one wonder whether it is wise to pursue even so “tame” an activity as gymnastics.

The derring-do of Olympic competitors and the death in an avalanche in July of Matilda Rapaport, a Swedish extreme skier, while being filmed in the Andes, prompted me to look more closely at why so many people choose to try these sports, how dangerous they are and how hazards can be minimized.

There are no reliable statistics to inform a potential participant of the risks of any sport, even everyday activities school children and amateur and professional athletes engage in, like soccer, skateboarding, basketball and football. While individual injuries and deaths are well publicized, there are no data to show how likely these are.

Furthermore, Jamie F. Burr of the University of Prince Edward Island and colleagues wrote in Canadian Family Physician, the public perception of risk is distorted: “Risk-taking is inherently human and can be an important factor in personal development. Injuries incurred while engaging in more traditional physical activities are regarded as ‘unfortunate accidents,’ while injuries resulting from participation in adventure sports are viewed as ‘foreseeable and foolhardy.’”

Second, the motivations offered by extreme sports participants for why they are so willing to assume the risks involved are not what you might expect. Adventure sports are not “an outlet for ‘crazy’ individuals with an unhealthy relationship to fear, who are pathological in their search for risk or living out a death wish,” Dr. Brymer and his colleague at Queensland University, Robert Schweitzer, wrote.

Yes, at first, having survived an attempt or two is exhilarating, and the emotional high (which, by the way, results from dopamine release in the brain, not adrenaline) prompts them to come back for more.

A study by John H. Kerr, a kinesiologist at the University of British Columbia, and Susan Houge Mackenzie, a movement specialist then at the University of Idaho, quoted a 26-year-old river surfer identified only as Jody, who said, “You’re just stoked.” Then she added, “It’s not just your adrenaline. It’s a sense of achievement. You set out to do something and you’ve done it — it’s everything leading up to it, the skills that you have or the hard work that you’ve done.”

Nor is it that extreme sports participants lack fear. “Fear is an essential element to their survival,” Dr. Brymer and Dr. Schweitzer explained. In interviews with extreme athletes, they and other researchers have learned that participants consider fear “a healthy, productive experience,” prompting them to take appropriate precautions that enhance the chances of surviving uninjured.

As one solo rope-free mountain climber told the researchers, , “If I panic, I’m lost, dead.” He learned to thwart panic and instead stay relaxed and focused, maintaining clarity and good judgment that help to protect him.

Also important, a 30-year-old BASE jumper identified as “TB” told Dr. Brymer, is to “learn everything possible about the sport; learn about weather conditions, learn about wind, learn about what wind does in and around buildings and structures and cliffs, etc., so you know what you can do and what you can’t do.”

Through interviews with many regular extreme sports participants, researchers have found that the emotional high becomes less and less important with time. As participants continue to pursue the activities, other motives and perceived benefits to health and well-being take precedence.

Mr. Kerr and Dr. Mackenzie reported that participants experienced such benefits as feeling strong, healthy and fit; connecting with nature and being more in touch with one’s surroundings; gaining self-confidence; and becoming self-sufficient.

Overcoming fear is a near-universal goal for participants, the Australian researchers wrote. A young woman BASE jumper they interviewed described fear as a gateway to transcendence, calling her sport the “ultimate metaphor for jumping into life rather than standing on the edge quivering.”

Devoted extreme sport participants regard safety as their highest priority. They learn the skills needed for their chosen sport, they train to become sufficiently expert at it and to know how to judge the extent of their ability, said Dr. Vani Sabesan, an orthopedic surgeon at Western Michigan University School of Medicine.

“Someone with medical expertise should be present to make sure you have the right protective gear and to rescue you if something goes wrong,” she said.

Susan McGowen, an athletic trainer at the University of New Mexico College of Education, who provided such oversight for a dozen years at the X-Games, said, “Just because you’ve seen it on TV or YouTube, don’t assume anybody can go out and try to duplicate the feats of extreme athletes. It takes years and years of practice and progress to get to those levels.”

Dr. McGowen emphasized the importance of having an athletic trainer present at all organized activities — school and youth leagues as well as amateur and professional games, who can enhance safety through proper nutrition, well-maintained equipment and good coaching, as well as properly care for an injured athlete.

Such guidance is especially important for people planning to participate in an extreme sport. “People are terrible judges of risk,” David O. Horton, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis, told me. “They don’t understand the language of the contracts they sign saying that they have no legal rights if something should go wrong. Organizers don’t have to spell out all the risks for the contract to be enforceable.”

His advice: “Be as cleareyed as you can be about what can possibly go wrong — ask questions, do research about potential downsides, and don’t try anything you’re not capable of or properly equipped to do.”


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