Robert E Rinehart. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.
New Year’s resolutions: ‘Not to watch any sport described as extreme, ultra or radical. As soon as they break out a ramp or a board of any kind, I’m outta there.’ Steve Hummer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution; cited in Mal Florence, ‘Morning Briefing,’ 1998.
User-Friendly Sport: An Introduction
At the turn of the century, a variety of factors influence sport—both participatory and spectatorial sport. Shifting attitudes toward leisure and sport, a market-driven global economy, the participation of multinational corporations in sport (whose loci are largely centered in ‘first world’ countries), and increased access to venues have all heightened participation and spectatorship for many sport forms. In fact, much discourse surrounds the growing sense that sport is not sport unless and until it becomes televised—that the very act of being televised validates and authenticates its claim to being sport. Of course, this approach begs the question of how we will describe and label those physical activities that children are doing in their neighborhoods.
Of course, the question of sport/non-sport has a long history in discussion of sport in society. Most recently this question has been related to funding issues, modernist concerns of high versus low sport, and, more broadly, the power relationships among the various players of contemporary sport. In point of fact, the deliberate sense that sport and television are linked may be a first-world, westernized ethnocentrism—but clearly, there are distinct differences between alternative and extreme sport and folk sport, and the impact of television might be one of the significant differences (though, of course, in some cases these distinctions elide: e.g., the Highland Games). But the survival of contemporary sport forms is dependent, to a large degree, upon the existence of critical mass. A critical mass of participants surely is important, but a critical mass of spectators at this point in history is also vital. Thus, a relationship between mass media and sport participants has led to the arrangement of a new kind of marriage in which sport is wed to television. As columnist Dave Perkins writes about mountain biking in the 1996 Olympics, the new sports are ‘primarily … made for TV. [They] certainly [are] not made for spectating in person’ (1996: D1). While I might debate these inferences about in-person spectating, it is true that the newer sports typically move through space in a different way from arena-bound sports like soccer and football and baseball. They lend themselves to tighter camera angles, quick shots and close-ups of the action—reminiscent of recent Hollywood productions—a hyper-MTV, a more virtual style of presentation.
Many of these newer sports themselves are self-conscious, seemingly aware of the fact of being seen, and, though they are still fundamentally practices of the body in space and time, they are also about presentation to others. They are about performance. They are, even at the grass-roots levels away from television cameras, about sharing the experience and about community. Sports like American football had their roots in this type of community—where college students and young professors (male) got together to test their abilities. Rules were implicit; and the affiliative sense one got of belonging to a football group was larger than any other sense of self. In the early days, playing football was an end in itself, not a means to a professional career. But that has changed, and now the so-called ‘alternatives’ to the mainstream sports of American football, soccer, rugby, baseball, basketball, volleyball and so on, are cutting-edge opportunities for alternative sports enthusiasts. These opportunities are sought actively by boarders of all varieties—surf, skate, snow, wake, skysurf—as well as in-line skaters, to name just a few, in their quest to become or remain active without the interference of undue authority. In the eyes of many alternative sports practitioners, ‘authority’ is represented by coaches, managers, organizing committees, corporate sponsors, media, rules enforcers, among many others. However, as will be discussed below, the ‘anti-mainstream’ impulse among some participants in many of these sports (cf. snowboarding) has gradually eroded.
Alternative, Extreme, or Global Fad?
New sports include what French scholar Nancy Midol might call ‘whiz’ sports (though her take on them is from a more participatory angle). These are sports in which time is compressed and action is rampant. New sports might include what Arthur and Marilouise Kroker (1989) term ‘panic sport,’ what some athletes and analysts term ‘alternative’ sport, and what US cable network ESPN and many others term ‘extreme’ sport. One writer explained it this way:
The ‘extreme’ moniker simply refers to a growing number of physically and mentally intense activities that have not been formally recognized as legitimate sports by most media and/or society. … But the need for legitimacy has been realized. (Rees, 1997: 32-3)
The terms used to identify these new sport forms are fundamentally important, because some terms have exclusive connotations, or emphasize only one facet of the attraction of the sports. Thus, for example, ‘whiz’ sport might exclude something like the teamwork-oriented, endurance-rewarding Eco-Challenge (or ESPN’s Extreme Adventure Race) or endurance running and ultra marathons from the mix. ‘Extreme’ sport might similarly exclude those activities that are not seen on television.
Whatever we choose to name these new sport forms at this point in time, ‘they’ have arrived. Advertisers clearly are pleased that the tough-to-reach 12-34-year-old male market is the fundamental market associated with these sports and the related media coverage. In 1996, the inaugural year of the newly named ‘X Games’ (and the second year of the event), live attendance was calculated at 201,350; in 1997 it moved to San Diego and the attendance was 219,900, and in 1998 it was 242,850. In 1997, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN International and ABC’s Wide World of Sports put out 37 hours of coverage; additionally, ESPN reached 71 million households, ESPN2 reached 48 million and ESPN International was broadcast in 198 countries in 21 languages (ESPN Sportszone, 1997). ESPN and ESPN2, respectively, have garnered (in 1998) 0.7 and 0.5 ratings for the X Games televised to US households. ABC pulled in a 2.3 rating in 1997 and a 1.6 rating in 1998 (Brockinton, 1998).
The ‘alternative sports’ phenomenon is worldwide, and this has not gone unnoticed by people in the media. For example, London-based writer Simon Barnes claims that his ‘favourite is an event called street luge racing—I hope they won’t take the heat off the event by stopping the traffic first’ (1995: 42). ‘X Games celebrate alternatives’ reads the headline in The Moscow [Russia] Tribune (1996), direct from the AP wire service. ‘Extreme Sports: Why Americans are risking life and limb for the big rush’ blares the front cover of the US News & World Report (Koerner, 1997). In New Zealand, where extreme sports like bungy jumping proliferate, the focus is on tourist cash and economic benefits (Henderson, 1998; Neems, 1998).
Interest among athletes is a key dimension of the alternative sport phenomenon. At the 1997 X Games, there were nearly five hundred competitors from over 20 different countries, including Russia, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Israel, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, France, South Africa, Kazahkstan and Canada. Daily Bread, an in-line magazine started by skaters, has had spreads on local in-liners from Asia (titled ‘Futuretrip’), the UK, Spain, Italy, Switzerland (with the Lausanne and Zurich competitions highlighted), Finland, Germany—plus a more recent photo spread of locals from 5 August to 30 September 1998 in 20 cities throughout the world, including Tokyo, Munich, Düsseldorf and Flensburg in Germany; Brussels, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Barcelona, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Dublin, Lausanne, Vienna, Belfast, Copenhagen, London, Ljubljana in Slovenia, and Sarnia and Toronto, Canada.
And the corporations are leading the way. Interest among corporations, from small, sport-based sponsors to large, multinational corporations, has also been key to the growth of these newer, alternative sports. A small sampling of businesses who have aligned with alternative sports includes the Italian multinationals Benetton and Roces, and corporations such as Salomon, Bauer, Senate and Tribe Distribution. There are also web-based companies/distributors like http://rollerwarehouse.com, http://skate-utopia.com, http://airbornesk8.com along with more typical corporate sponsors of the X Games, like AT&T, Coors, Nike, Taco Bell, Mountain Dew, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Pringles, Rollerblade, Slim Jim, VISA and Snickers. Clearly, these companies have found a niche market.
The point is that, while the more conservative sports guardians have marginalized these alternative sports, there is a large demand for and response to extreme and alternative sports. The sports themselves do not always matter to the companies (much as, it is claimed, sports don’t really matter to Rupert Murdoch). Some companies do profess empathy with the sports. Nike’s social reconstruction campaigns are perhaps the most famous. Notable as well are Benetton’s Colors campaigns, and Roces’s slogan ‘team unity—brotherhood—conviction—respect’ smacks of similar ‘social design’ strategies. The authenticity of the makers clearly matters to many of these sports’ enthusiasts. Thus, snowboarders will buy Jake Burton products because they are aware of his involvement in and commitment to the sport. Of course many professionals in in-line skating have wheels named after themselves, which is clearly an attempt to capitalize on this authenticity/athlete-identification phenomenon. The wary buyer is faced with the challenge of sorting out which wheels work best for him or her.
Since many of these ‘alternative’ activities are promoted as ‘made-for-television sports,’ it seems logical that television is key to these sports’ ultimate proliferation. As television increased its sensory appeal for viewers in technological advances meant for mainstream sports, the technologies soon became appropriated and combined with a quick-shot, hand-held camera, MTV-style of production. Sportscaster Jim Lampley once described the immediacy of viewer involvement as the ‘you-are-there audio’ (Home Box Office, 1991). But many of the appropriated-for-television sports have gone steps farther in attempting to ‘virtualize’ the experience of elite participation while retaining recognition of the ideology associated with mass participation (often ecological in nature). Added to slo-motion replay, the zoom, the heightened audio and so on, are the street luge’s ‘luge-cams, mounted directly on the sled, to enhance the viewer’s perspective by traveling at 60 mph just inches off the ground’ (Brooker, 1998: 251), the skysurfers’ helmet cam; a variety of robotic, crane-robotic and pole cams; the high-resolution video camera used by camera-operators for the Winter X Games’ Skier X (six skiers at once) and the snowboarders’ slopestyle events; and the ‘rope cam, a miniature RF [radio frequency] camera located on the handle of the rope to get close ups of the competitors’ (Brooker, 1998: 253). The quality of production is incredibly good, and any ‘roughness’ of shots is purposeful, seemingly adding to the virtual rush the at-home viewer is meant to feel when watching these events.
Naming Some Names: Amalgams of Skills and Thrills
What are alternative sports? They are activities that either ideologically or practically provide alternatives to mainstream sports and to mainstream sport values. Raymond Williams’s (1977) categorizations of ‘dominant, residual, and emergent’ can be helpful in providing a framework for determining what sports fall into mainstream or emergent categories. Of course, there is overlap between and among the Williams’s categories, by sport and by level of sport. Thus, a pick-up football game can be both mainstream, because of the intersections with professional and collegiate football, and residual, because it is an ‘effective element of the present’ (p. 122) mainstream football nexus.
Alternative sports may have elements of the mainstream or residual in them. However, their obvious difference from the mainstream ‘is that they have not gained widespread acceptance from mainstream audiences’ (Rinehart, 1998a: 403). Other differences are highlighted by a range of debates. For example, there are debates surrounding team versus individual sports (though media moguls have tried to extend individual extreme sports into more of a team orientation). There are debates about the importance of professionalism in the sports, about incorporation of grass-roots oppositional sport forms into the mainstream, and about professional/amateur statuses. Finally, there are debates surrounding the lifestyle, aesthetics and competitive characters of the sports.
There is, of course, overlap between mainstream and these alternative-to-the-mainstream sports. ESPN certainly does not control exclusively the coverage of these sports, though the point could be made that the omnipresence of ESPN, and the very dominance of the electronic media, provides a cultural dominance over the mere presentation of extreme, alternative sports in the electronic sportscape (see Rinehart, forthcoming). Thus, until other media companies come on to the scene, ESPN will maintain dominant market share and will play a major role in shaping for the [virtual] world what extreme sports will consist of, constitute, and become.
Forms of what might be considered alternative sports that are proliferating around the globe could be variously categorized as extreme, alternative, whiz, lifestyle, or panic in their fundamental expression though it may not be appropriate to view them always as ‘extreme.’ Alternative sports at this point in history include, but are certainly not limited to, sport forms such as the following:4 hang gliding, high wire, ski flying, soaring, caving, land and ice yachting (ice sailing), mountainboarding, showshoeing, speed biking, speed skiing, steep skiing, air chair, jetskiing, open water swimming, powerboat racing, snorkeling, speed sailing and trifoiling (all mentioned, among others, in Tomlinson, 1996). There are skateboarding (cf. Beal, 1995; Beal and Weidman, forthcoming), whitewater kayaking (see, for example, Mounet and Chifflet, 1996, forthcoming; Watters, forthcoming), korfball (cf. Crum, 1988), professional beach volleyball (cf. Silverstein, 1995), surfing (see, for example, Pearson, 1981; Booth, forthcoming), and windsurfing (cf. Wheaton, 1997, forthcoming; Wheaton and Tomlinson, 1998). There are ultimate fighting (amalgam of styles, probably deriving from the martial arts), ‘extreme’ skiing (the films of Warren Miller may have driven the desire for this activity; see, for example, Kremer, forthcoming; and Kay and Laberge, forthcoming), deep water diving (fixed weight, variable weight and absolute diving), paragliding, sandboarding (du Lac, 1995), and the Miner’s Olympics. There are barefoot snow skiing, parachute skiing, mono skiing, para bungee (bungee from a hot-air balloon), bungee from a helicopter, underwater hockey, canoe polo, bicycle polo, jai alai (which, similar to pelota, is a ‘new world’ form with slightly different cultural significance, rule structure and context), SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving, BASE (buildings, antenna tower, span, earth) jumping, indoor climbing (artificial climbing wall), ultra marathoning (Grenfell, 1998), netball and bicycle stunt and freestyle (cf. Kubiak, 1997). Various countries and cultural regions also have emerging forms of alternative sports. From Australia there are trugo (a mallet game with rubber ring) and sphairee (miniaturized tennis) (The Sports Factor, 25 September 1998). In Switzerland there is ski-horsing (skiers drawn downhill by horses). There is pelota, a demonstration sport in the Barcelona Olympics; belote, a similar game, from Belgium; and pole sitting and pole jumping from Holland, where, respectively, people sit in the middle of lakes on poles for time and people jump irrigation channels in contests for distance (personal communication, Morris Levy, 1999).
Additionally, according to Donnelly, ‘there is also real risk—in solo climbing, deep sea diving, ocean yacht racing, hot air balloon epics, Himalayan and other high altitude mountaineering …’ (Sportsoc discussion, 3 February 1997). Seemingly calmer alternatives to mainstream sports (though participants might dispute this) include dance sport, one of the newer entries into Olympic sports, which makes its Olympic appearance in 2000 at the Sydney Games (cf. The Times, 1995; B. Thomas, 1998).
High risk is generally considered a factor in extreme sports, but not necessarily in alternative sports. Individuality is privileged over a team orientation, and perhaps that is one reason why purists are initially skeptical when ESPN has gone to doubles and triples performing simultaneously (as in skateboarding or in-line).
There are also a variety of international competitions involving alternative sports. These include but are not limited to international windsurfing competitions like the one held in Essaouira, Morocco, ‘known as Wind City Afrika … [where] international windsurf competitions are held … each spring’ (Keeble, 1995: 163). There are the Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series (Thomas, 1998b) and a variety of adventure races around the world (see, for example, Bell, forthcoming; Cotter, forthcoming) (for example, the Eco Challenge, the Raid Gauloises and the Morocco Adventure Race). There are triathlons, probably the most famous of which is the Ironman, held in Hawaii annually. There are street basketball tournaments like the Gus Macker 3-on-3 (Brewington, 1993) and the Hoop-It-Up World Championship (Forest, 1993). There are the Vans Triple Crown of Skateboarding (cf. Howe, 1998), the Highland Games (cf. Jarvie, 1991), the World Masters Games, the Youth Games, the Corporate Games, Goodwill Games, Gay Games, World Transplant Games and the Maccabbee Games. All are alternative to mainstream sports in one way or another. Additionally, because they are somewhat marginalized, despite being appropriated by the International Olympic Committee, some might include the Paralympics in this list. Both the Paralympics and the Special Olympics are examples of what were once alternatives to mainstream sports but which, due to institutionalization, have become increasingly mainstream themselves. Of course, this liminal area—whether sport is mainstream or emerging, solidified in the public consciousness or merely arriving—appears to be a realm in which many ‘successful’ contemporary sports have dwelled at some point in their histories.
The X Games: Mediated Alternative Sport
Among some people, especially many young people around the world, the X Games, originally the Extreme Games, have somehow come to signify radical alternative sports. What are ‘extreme’ sports? In the first incarnation of the X Games (the eXtreme Games), in an attempt to link the site of Fort Adams, Rhode Island with extreme sport, co-host Suzi Kolber intoned,
This is an attitude toward life; passion that comes from the soul. From its beginnings, Rhode Island has been distinguished by its support for freedom, its rebellious, authority-defying nature. Fort Adams, built to defend, looms large this week as a new generation makes its stand. It’s an opportunity to redefine the way we look at sports. (ESPN, broadcast 1 July 1995)
Yet some practitioners—and writers—have disputed the very term ‘extreme’ as merely a blatant and cynical attempt to capitalize on a wave of oppositional sport forms and, by doing so, for corporations such as ESPN to appropriate trendy oppositional forms.
ESPN, the cable network based in the United States and owned since 1995 by the Disney Corporation (along with ABC-TV), in 1995 started The eXtreme Games, which attempted to capitalize on the word ‘extreme.’ The company realized that the word ‘extreme’ was problematic: ESPN quickly distanced itself from the word ‘extreme,’ ‘as it became passé and the network decided it carried a negative connotation’ (Rother, 1997: B-2). Amy Cacciola, then-Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications for the X Games, said that ‘the word “extreme” is completely overused. There’s extreme skiing, and everything you see nowadays has the word “extreme” on it’ (personal communication, 4 October 1996).
The Games was a summer made-for-television sport event which, in 1995, displayed non-mainstream sports (mainly for male participants). These included:
- Skateboarding (see, for example, Beal and Weidman, forthcoming);
- In-line skating (a.k.a., Rollerblading) (see, for example, Rinehart, forthcoming);
- Sky surfing (see, for example, Koyn, forthcoming; Sydnor, forthcoming);
- Street luge;
- Eco Challenge;
- BMX dirt bike jumping (see, for example, Downs, forthcoming; Kusz, forthcoming);
- Barefoot (ski) jumping;
- Bungee jumping;
- Sport climbing (see, for example, Donnelly, forthcoming; Dornian, forthcoming);
- Mountain biking (see, for example, Eassom, forthcoming; Bridgers, forthcoming).
No one knew whether or how well the televised event would be received. Chris Fowler, who co-hosted the eXtreme Games in 1995, has since written that:
The X Games might never amount to a true revolution, maybe just a welcome diversion on the crowded sports calendar. But if you arrive with an open mind, you’ll get sucked in. The energy is contagious. Even if we’re still not certain exactly what to expect. (1998: 250, emphasis in original)
It is worth noting that, by undercutting potential criticism, Fowler has anticipated and thus appropriated objections that a more ‘pure’ sports audience might make. Yet there remains an element of truth to the uncertainty he identifies, despite his inevitable and concerted effort at selling the Games through his words.
Over the years since 1995 the events of the ESPN Summer X Games (name changed in January of 1996) have evolved and become known to include the following major event categories. There are:
- Skateboarding (street and both single and doubles vert; and, as exhibitions, downhill, women’s halfpipe and off-road skateboarding);
- In-line skating (aggressive, street, vert and vert triples, and downhill);
- Sky surfing;
- Street luge (dual and ‘Super Mass Street’ events);
- Extreme Adventure Race;
- Bicycle stunt (flatland, dirt jumping, street, and single and doubles vert);
- Barefoot waterski jumping;
- Sportclimbing (difficulty and speed);
- Snowboarding big air.
All events are open to both males and females, though television time follows the pattern of mainstream sport coverage in that it focuses on men and generally ignores the women (see, for example, Dennis-Vano, 1995).
In late January of 1997, ESPN aired a Winter X Games, which included such extreme sports as:
- Snowboarding (which was incorporated into the Olympic venue at the Nagano Games in 1998—is it still ‘alternative’?) (see, for example, Burton, forthcoming; Humphreys, forthcoming);
- Super-modified shovel racing;
- Ice climbing;
- Snow mountain bike racing;
- Crossover slopestyle snowboarding.
In 1999, the Winter X Games, broadcast from Crested Butte, Colorado (16-22 January, just two weeks prior to the Super Bowl), included:
- Snocross (snomobiles racing);
- Free skiing (Skier-X, with six skiers racing simultaneously);
- Snowboarding (Boarder-X, again with multiple snowboarders);
- Snow mountain bike racing downhill;
- Speed, speed and difficulty ice climbing;
- Slopestyle skiboarding;
- Slopestyle, big air and halfpipe snowboarding (ESPN2, 1999).
Media Logics: Capitalistic Innovation
Though the previous references to alternative sports may seem exhaustive, the alternative sportscape is certainly not limited to just what I’ve listed. It is difficult and would be very tedious to list all the variants that ESPN and Fox Sports Network have presented to viewers with the hope of attracting a large audience. But three of the more notable ones include the following. First, ESPN’s H2O Winter Classic, which combines professional snowboarders with professional surfers, each doing one day of the activities in Mammoth Mountain and Huntington Beach, California, for a total score. Second, The World’s Strongest Man competitions, whose events have included towing an airplane, lifting logs and barrel walking. Third, the Boardercross (Boarder-X) competitions, ‘in which six riders simultaneously race down a giant slalom course filled with gulches, corkscrews and other obstacles’ (Benc, 1998: C-7). The list continues to grow, as amalgams of previously known sports are given new twists, or existing sports are combined with other existing sports. Meanwhile the marketing departments of ESPN, Fox and other media companies around the world are constantly thinking up new combinations and ways of selling them to viewers. In such a context, change is inherent.
Perhaps the rate and ever presence of change is one of the key differences between established, mainstream sports and these newer, constantly evolving, alternative sports. Not only do most alternative sports enthusiasts welcome change, but they often provide the impetus to it. Of course, nostalgia is present, but with new and different challenges ever being sought, the nostalgia for a seemingly tamer past is short-lived. By creating new sport forms, many of the athletes in alternative sports hope to be the next entrepreneur who works at her/his play, and who incidentally makes it big. Some of the models for this pattern are snowboarder Jake Burton, in-line skaters Anjie Walton and Arlo Eisenberg, and skateboarder Tony Hawk. The dynamics associated with this quest and the creativity that permeates alternative sports tend to produce change that is often radical, so that sports are mutated rapidly into mildly unrecognizable forms. In mainstream sport, on the other hand, most of the changes are superficial, often constrained by the fear of undermining an established product and, of course, the nostalgia that reaffirms many people’s connections with the sport.
Troubles in Paradise: Growing Pains, Greed, or Good Will?
With any new sport form (or, in this case, phenomenon), there will be problems, conflicts, debates. In each of the sports previously listed, there are adamant practitioners who want to make their visions known. The athletes’ views do not always coincide with the views of profit-oriented companies, nor do they coincide with the nostalgic ideas of a sports-savvy public. But much of the conflict and controversy that is associated with these sports arises because participants are highly committed and possess different ideas about process and goals.
Alternative sports emerge in contexts where dynamics revolve around a range of contentious issues. These include:
- The incorporation of grass-roots practitioners into the mainstream;
- Outsider/insider status of athletes;
- Professional/amateur standings of athletes;
- Purity, authenticity and genuineness of the sports;
- Multinational corporate sponsorship and globalization/Americanization arguments;
- The philosophies behind the sports: lifestyle, aesthetics, competition;
- Self-regulation versus governance by others;
- Sexism, racism and homophobia.
I can only touch briefly on these issues, and they tend to overlap, but an insightful reader will perhaps look particularly at other chapters in this volume and seek out conceptual frameworks that might be useful for analyzing alternative as well as mainstream sports.
The Incorporation of Grass-roots Practitioners into the Mainstream
Elsewhere, I have pointed out that corporate strategies for producing mass acceptance among in-line skaters and skateboarders involve fan identification with the sport’s personalities, modeling behavior of younger participants, corporate sponsorship and embracing of certain sports and individuals over others, and an uneasy, contested dynamic between performers’ (who represent actual practitioners) artistic impulses and the (inferred) competitive impulses of mainstream audiences (Rinehart, 1998a: 402-3).
Such strategies are deliberate. They are meant to create mass acceptance and audience. If they are successful, they will serve also to undercut the very oppositional nature of these particular alternative sports. Of course, Ron Semiao, the so-called ‘innovator’ of the X Games for ESPN, says that he is ‘always on the lookout for “what’s emerging and what’s stale” so the X Games can stay on the cutting edge’ (cited in Rother, 1997: B-2).
So, grass-roots participants are urged to get more involved, while non-participants are urged to get involved (at least as spectators) in the sports. This multi-pronged attack on the viewing/participating public thus creates a larger fan base, so that ‘alternative’ gradually melds into ‘mainstream,’ at least in terms of the sports’ acceptance.
Outsider/Insider Status of Athletes
Surfing culture is illustrative of the overt problem outsiders have in some of the more insular alternative sports. For example, surfers from California to Hawaii to Australia have continually resisted efforts by ‘style’ companies (that is, clothing or equipment manufacturers) who have not demonstrated a long-term commitment to the sport. Tommy Hilfiger’s apparel line fairly recently attempted to penetrate the admittedly tough surfing apparel market, when its ‘core men’s casual clothing line slow[ed]’ (Earnest, 1998: D5). Its attempt was made easier by the fact that a long-time, well-known surfing family in southern California was acting as consultants for Hilfiger, thus effectively acting on behalf of the company. The authenticity of the family helped it to better penetrate the surfing apparel market. Clearly, Hilfiger, Nike and others have realized the importance of the insider status, as some of their sport apparel lines have failed.
The insider-outsider lines can become confused, however, by a savvy company. When ESPN first broadcast the eXtreme Games in 1995, there was really no such thing as a short downhill race for in-liners. ESPN suggested to the 10K skaters that such a downhill race would make for good television. Many of the skaters scoffed, claiming that a short, straight, packed downhill on in-line skates was too dangerous. But ESPN persevered, increased the prize money and what one writer characterized as a ‘carnival act for a TV event’ (Seltsam, 1996: 15) became something that by 1999 younger skaters have come to accept and define as exciting. Marvin Percival (affiliated with Sk8Deal, an on-line speed skating firm based in Andover, Massachusetts), a father of in-line speed skaters, revealed to me that one of his sons is eager to participate in the ‘extremely dangerous’ but exciting short downhill course. He explains that his son’s background in the more legitimate speed skating gives him a ‘tremendous amount of credibility’ in the new sport (personal communication, 18 December 1998).
Pretenders in the extreme sports are soon revealed. Wheaton (forthcoming) has demonstrated that committed, ‘core’ members of windsurfing clubs are more concerned with what windsurfers do than with how they pose. And the posing or the authenticity—revealed in style, self-identification, insider argot and knowledge issues—quickly becomes clear to insiders. Put another way, a skater wrote to the editor of Daily Bread: ‘Who fucking cares what people wear when they skate? Get a life! Any real skater should know that it’s not the look it’s the attitude [sic]’ (Cook, 1995: no page).
Professional/Amateur Standings of Athletes
Many extreme or alternative sport enthusiasts participate without any chance of financial gain. They do the activity for the pure love, the excitement and differentness of the sport. In fact, many of these participants either don’t consider their activity a ‘sport,’ or don’t care. It is something they do, on weekends or whenever they can find the time. In a traditional sense, these people are considered amateurs, though their aptitude, dedication and commitment to the sports may be very high.
But with the advent of ESPN’s X Games and similar programming, those athletes who benefit financially from the sports and in the process become role models have challenged people to think about the meanings of professional and amateur in new ways. For example, Katie Brown, a difficulty route climber, began climbing in 1993 at age 13, won the 1996 X Games in Difficulty, and, as a 16-year-old, left ‘her Georgia home to follow the professional climbing circuit …’ (Brooker, 1998: 214). Joining a professional circuit—which of course typically includes the X Games—is only one of the many routes that alternative sports enthusiasts may take. Street luger Michael ‘Biker’ Sherlock owns a skateboard company. In-line pioneer Arlo Eisenberg has starred in films, made commercials, been an editor/writer for skating magazines, toured the world professionally, and his family owns a skatepark in Plano, Texas.
It seems that the traditional binaries of professional and amateur are not applicable to many extreme sportists. Many of the core members of these groups are fairly young and, like surfers who follow the waves or skiers who work at ski resorts in order to ski daily, they have creatively generated space for themselves so that they may continue to live the lifestyle of extremist.
Purity, Authenticity, and Legitimacy of—and in—Alternative Sports
There are several ways in which the credibility of extreme sports may be interrogated. First, there is the very authenticity of the sport itself. Extreme sports have been routinely criticized by mainstream purists who tend to deride the particularly ‘invented’ character of the participants and the sports.5 Secondly, the legitimacy of the sports is questioned. The ‘non-competitive,’ made-for-television nature of the sports can make them seem illegitimate to mainstream sports enthusiasts. Thirdly, there are questions about the authenticity of the participants themselves. Such questions frame the credibility of the sport in terms related to the insider-outsider statuses of the participants.
When issues of purity and authenticity are discussed it is helpful to note that the Super Bowl is considered by the vast majority of people in the United States to be an authentic event for American football. Yet it began only in 1967. And the Vince Lombardi Trophy that is steeped in nostalgia and remembrance (and historical authenticity) was given for the first time to the winners of Super Bowl V in 1972 (see Rinehart, 1998b: 73-5). Even though the Super Bowl was only 34 years old (in the year 2000) it has achieved a sense of authenticity and the appearance of credibility. Money and media attention have been powerful in speeding up history in this case.
Basketball is said to have been invented by Canadian James Naismith as he sought to develop a form of indoor recreation that could be done during the cold winter months in the Northeastern United States. He borrowed elements from a variety of sports at the time and as basketball evolved, rules and game-play were refined. As basketball enthusiasts brought the game to others, as it gained more and more exposure, it took on the patina of authenticity. It simultaneously achieved mainstream status and credibility.
The Skins Game, an event in which high-profile golfers have been known to make putts that earn them $200,000, began in Reagan’s 1980s America as a made-for-television event. Today it is doing quite well in terms of television audience ratings. In 1996, ‘nearly 6 million homes tuned in … making [it] the second-highest rated golf telecast of the year, behind the Masters’ (Price, 1997: F-5).
So it is with extreme sports. Each of them derived from somewhere, from some person or persons who the participants usually hold up as founders of the sport. Each of the sports is said to have an origination myth and writer Kevin Brooker has established a time-line identifying important events in the sports highlighted on ESPN’s ‘Way Inside ESPN’s X Games.’ According to ESPN coverage, the sport of wakeboarding can be traced back to 1922 when Ralph Samuelson ‘straps two pine boards … onto his feet and takes off behind a motorboat on Lake Pepin, MN.’ Then in 1985, surfer Tony Flynn developed ‘the Skurfer, a hybrid of a water ski and a surfboard,’ while ‘Jimmy Redmon is working on his Redline brand board’ in Texas. In 1990, ‘Herb O’Brien’s H.O. Sports introduces the first compression-molded board, the Hyperlite,’ and on the story goes. Another example is the Australian game of sphairee, a miniaturized game of tennis. Said to have been invented in the 1960s by Sydney resident and former linguistics professor Frederick Arthur George Beck, the rationale (there is usually a rationale as well as an origination story) was that he sought to play a tennis-like sport in a small space (Radio National, 1998).
With new sport forms there are issues of legitimacy along with issues of authenticity. Among some of those who feel qualified to comment on sports there has developed a high-low sport ideology that is similar to a high-low culture ideology. Popular sport (that is, sport made specifically for television, rather than mainstream sport which has been appropriated by television), according to this ideology, is decried at the same time that the importance of its popularity is acknowledged. The thinking seems to be that if they are ‘made for television,’ are they not in the same category as so-called ‘trash sports’ like roller derby, professional wrestling and the Billy Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match? This thinking, of course, assumes the paradoxical view that credibility and authenticity are defined in terms of elite sport, but everyone should be engaged in it (for a lengthy discussion of this point, see Rinehart, 1998b).
Often, the legitimacy issue is confused with what Benjamin Lowe termed ‘expressive’ and ‘spectacle’ sports (1977: 29). Thus, those sports in which judges are used to determine the quality of performance and the outcomes of competitive events are, oddly, seen as less than sport. In mainstream sports this would be the case for diving, gymnastics and synchronized swimming. In extreme sports it would be the case for nearly all the events. Apparently, some people see more objective measures of achievement and success as being more legitimate and view the inclusion of subjectivity as ‘soft’ sport and as being indicative of a lack of legitimacy.
Finally, those associated with the sports themselves raise authenticity questions. Core members of the sports appreciate skillfulness, but it is possible for a person to be an authentic member of an extreme sport group and not be the most skillful participant. The works of scholars such as Belinda Wheaton in windsurfing (forthcoming), Peter Donnelly in climbing (Donnelly and Young, 1988) and Becky Beal and Lisa Weidman in skateboarding (forthcoming), show clearly that a participant’s authenticity is socially determined. Attitude, style, world-view and the meanings given to the participant’s involvement are all used to determine membership in the subculture associated with the sport.
Multinational Corporate Sponsorship
Companies involved in the sports themselves sponsor individual athletes and events. Manufacturers such as Roces, Benetton, Salomon and others have aligned themselves with a variety of the sports, producing equipment and apparel for these so-called niche markets. In some cases, the athletes themselves have attempted to control, through a range of strategies (including the importance of insider status to consumers), the production end of their sports. For example, Jake Burton makes snowboards and Arlo Eisenberg manufactures and distributes in-line skate products.
But there appear to be at least two other aspects to the intersection between corporations, businesses and athletes. One is the sponsorship of events and individuals by multinational corporations whose primary function has little or nothing to do with sport. One might infer a sliding scale of extreme sport involvement when applied to sponsors so that, looking at sport sponsorship from the point of view of corporate involvement in the sport, a range of possibilities could be seen. For example, a company founded by an athlete would be seen as highly legitimate (individual insider status). Next in the order of legitimacy would be a company like Roces (a skate manufacturer), with a corporate face (corporate insider). Next would be a company that has taken over some original-insider, like Benetton who took over Rollerblade (corporate insider/outsider). Next would be a company like Nike, whose expertise is in sport, but not especially in extreme sports. Lastly, there would be a corporation like Mountain Dew, which has blatantly appropriated the ‘extreme’ tag and used it humorously. Different groups would perhaps debate the order of these characterizations as far as legitimacy (a ‘pretender’ like Nike, it could be argued, might create more backlash than Mountain Dew, whose stance was that it never pretended to be extreme), but these general descriptions of corporate legitimacy might be a good starting point for discussion.
Clearly, multinational corporations have seen that extreme sports (for both men and women) are a lucrative avenue for producing, recruiting and servicing consumers. However, the strategies used by corporations do not always coincide with the self-proclaimed ethos of alternative sport, such as individuality, actual participation and authenticity.
There is a great deal of conflict between alternative sports and mainstream sports. For example, alternative sports have deeply impacted viewership in the 12-34 age range, in some cases usurping the power that mainstream sports have held over young males for generations (Greenfeld, 1998). Furthermore, the debates around issues of globalization, Americanization and so on, intersect with alternative sport, especially since it is so deeply enmeshed with international media like Fox and Disney. The story of who controls the presentation of these sports is the story of the conflicts and contestations over who owns, and who will control the economics, but also the soul of these sports.
Lifestyle, Aesthetics, and Competition
There has been an interesting non-complaint associated with alternative and extreme sport, and that is that there are rarely reports of athletes suffering burnout. Until the advent of control by others such as agents, site coordinators, sponsors and ESPN, for example, this was a non-issue. Now, however, when fun has somehow been made into work for these athletes—and with competition added to the mix—there are more and more complaints.
In-line skater Arlo Eisenberg once said, ‘Our sports—Rollerblading—have never really had grass-roots.’ He claims that this, more than anything else, has made forms of in-line skating more vulnerable to outside influences: ‘ESPN is great in terms of exposure but it’s dangerous in how they present [in-line skating]—making it something that is wasn’t meant to be … based on competition. … New kids don’t want another “sport”’ (personal communication, 31 October 1996).
The core members of in-line and of other extreme sports have claimed that they initiated their participation because it was something they could do by themselves, because it didn’t require adult (coaches, officials, etc.) supervision, and because it was challenging. They formed a great support network for one another. Enthusiasts appreciated the excellent moves of other participants in ways that were inconsistent with a ‘competitive ethic.’ Two anecdotes, one from footbag and one from professional skateboarding, can be used to explain the different ethos of some alternative sports participants.
In the first case, footbag (also known as Hacky-Sack) is played as part of Orangewood High School’s (Redlands, CA) physical education curriculum. One of the students, who had been footbagging for three years (in 1996), Rick Bunting, said ‘It brings the body and the mind together. … I think it’s almost a type of meditation in a sense’ (cited in McCuin, 1996: H3).
In the second case, a writer describes a skateboarding event involving two top boarders:
At the 1997 X Games, skateboarders Chris Senn and Andy Macdonald battled for the gold medal and $5,000 on the street course. Macdonald nailed his final 60-second run, including something called a back flip where he went up one ramp, turned, twisted and landed going down another ramp … Two skateboarders later, Senn stepped to the top of the ramp. For 53 seconds, he was perfect, flying down ramps, sliding along rails and bringing the packed crowd to its feet. But with seven seconds remaining, Senn bit it on the black asphalt. Said Senn: ‘I thought Andy won.’ (Norcross, 1997: D-3)
But Senn won, and Macdonald and Senn were both incredibly gracious, explaining how the other’s tricks were outstanding, and how much fun it was to watch the other perform. Later, Senn explained a bit of the ethos for skateboarding, and perhaps for other alternative sports: ‘It’s like painting or music. You can’t judge anybody. It’s an art form, not a sport’ (1997: D-3). And yet, of course, it is both.
Of course, as more and more people begin to participate, and bring in more of a competitive ethos to the sports, the very nature of the sports will continue to change. And as corporations like ESPN see that competition sells on television, that head-to-head combat between six skiers, with the naturally occurring spills and tumbles, and crashes in the street luge, bring in audience, the mainstream values of American sport will continue to impact the original, non-competitive ethos of these sports.
Self-Regulation versus Governance by Others
To some extent, previous issues like multinational corporate involvement, issues of authenticity and credibility and lifestyle issues intersect with the issue of self-regulation of the sports. To what degree, for instance, does corporate involvement promote the growth of the sport as opposed to serving exclusively the fiduciary interests of the corporation? When ‘stars’ in the ‘cult of celebrity’ become perceived as sell-outs, there immediately arises a problem of authenticity. And when participants have a world-view that doing the sport on a daily basis is fundamental to insider status, and a once-a-year televised X Games (what some might term good exposure for the sports, others might see as exploitation) only shows the winning contestants, there is a perception that the self-control of the sport is being wrested from its founders.
This then becomes an issue of self-determination versus governance by others. A case in point is the recent co-optation of snow-boarding by the International Olympic Committee for the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Sean O’Brien of Transworld Snowboarding Business Magazine (cited in Thomas, 1998a) says, ‘If it wasn’t for snowboarding coming to the resorts, overall skier visitation numbers would be in the toilet’ (1998a: C14). Clearly, snowboarding—and snowboarders—have changed the nature of recreational use for many recreationalists (estimated at about 4 million in the United States, but with up to ‘10 trips a year’ per person, versus about two trips a year for skiers, according to Greg Ralph, Marketing Director at Bear Mountain, CA, cited in P. Thomas, 13 March 1998a: C14). Critical mass of participants—thus, educated spectators—was an important factor in the decision to ‘Olympize’ the sport.
Early on, the IOC’s ski arm, the International Ski Federation (FIS), began a ‘snowboard tour to rival the ISF [International Snowboard Federation] circuit’ and then worked its way (according to many of the ISF riders) into the mainstream (Dufresne, 1998: C10). The ISF at this point in time, it should be noted, personifies self-governance for snowboarders.
Many snowboarders, however, not willing to be so readily appropriated by what they saw as the strong-arm tactics of the IOC, chose to boycott the 1998 Nagano Games. They were especially disappointed by the fact that their events were sponsored by equipment and clothing manufacturers whose apparel they could not wear. This scenario involved motivations similar to those in the 1992 USA Men’s Basketball ‘Dream Team’’s Nike/Reebok conflict. But the Games still went on and, as US Olympic snowboarder Lisa Kosglow said,‘some of the other [ISF] riders have a lot of resentment … It’s a whole sellout issue’ (cited in Dufresne, 1998: C10).
Some alternative sports like skateboarding ‘have been around [a long time and have] created the model for all the sports after them. Time, experience, they have the most solid, definite identity,’ according to Arlo Eisenberg (personal communication, 31 October 1996). They are more solidly entrenched, and thus less likely to become overtly appropriated and changed by outsiders. But the newer, less-homogeneous sports are more ripe for multinationals to co-opt. Many of the athletes in these sports have chosen to ride the wave and, rightly or wrongly, have decided that they can be better agents for change within the corporate structure than by fighting it from the outside. Arlo Eisenberg puts it this way: ‘Our goal to maintain purity and integrity is not anathema to ESPN’s goal to make money. Long-term, make it something worth watching’ (personal communication, 31 October 1996).
Sexism, Racism, and Homophobia
It is said that ESPN eXtreme Games founder Ron Semiao ‘jumped off the couch, went to a bookstore and found there was no magazine that encompassed more than one non-mainstream sport such as skateboarding, sport climbing and snowboarding. Each had its own magazine and its own culture’ (Rother, 1997: B-2). Indeed, it is true. Just as each of these sports has its ‘own magazine and its own culture,’ it also has its own opportunity to welcome new members who are, in the beginning, different from the existing membership. However, many of these sports are expensive. As Thorstein Veblen observed at the end of the nineteenth century, the wealthy classes have ways of ‘conspicuously consuming’ that covertly lock others out of their leisurely pursuits (1979 ). In the nineteenth century, it was sailing, polo, fox hunting and other expensive sports. Exclusivity remains a part of traditional or mainstream sports today, and it is also characteristic in a range of alternative sports. For example, here is a listing of costs to equip and train for skysurfing:
Skysurfboard: $500-$750. Camera helmet: $500. Jumpsuit: $250. PC7 camera: $2,500. Of course, you first need to be certified to skydive, which can take several weeks: $1,500. For training at the pro level, figure 12 jumps a day, six days a week. At $16 a jump, that’s $1,152 per week for the sky-surfer, another $1,152 if you want a camera flyer to record it all for posterity. Call Daddy. (Brooker, 1998: 66)
Expenses in many alternative sports can be quite high. For snowboarders, climbers, BASE jumpers, adventure challenge teams, and for anyone aspiring to become professional in their sport there is travel to and from sites. Travel costs are added to costs for equipment, support personnel, training, insurance and entry fees. Overall, these expenses can be quite daunting.
Alternative sports can be exclusionary in additional ways as well. More recent evidence from some of the magazines found by X Games developer Ron Semiao reveals a dearth of female athletes and a concomitant lack of press coverage for the women who do participate (see, for example, Dennis-Vano, 1995, ‘Look out boys, here we come’). Because few, if any, alternative sports are found in or are sponsored by public schools, laws calling for gender equity, such as Title IX in the United States, cannot be used to force changes. Parity for girls and women is not yet enforced, and the organizational structures of these sports are in their early and formative stages of development. In other words, many alternative sports are still grass-roots, partly informal activities, and are not legally bound to create parity for girls and women. Rarely are young girls and women welcomed into some of the sports, though again the degree of acceptance for females is uneven, largely dependent upon the specific sports themselves.
Though studies have not looked at the prevalence of sexism, racism, and homophobia in extreme sports, segments from a few letters from some of the magazines indicate that they have not gone unnoticed:
How come ESPN only showed girls skating on ESPN2? That reeked cuz I don’t get it and I’ve been dying to see girls skate since I’ve started skating. ESPN sucks! (McCoy, 1996: no page)
[‘humorous’ reply from writer Chris Pontius to a letter to the editor] If you’re such a tough man, what the hell are you ironing clothes for? That’s woman’s work! You also have been using a stapler … Craig, are you a male secretary? It makes me excited to know that there’s some mad, deranged male secretary running around St Louis beating up on the beginning skaters. (Pontius, 1997: no page)
[in response to a letter that had stated ‘I agree that chickz shouldn’t skate’] You are an idiot. Simon’s article was stupid, but I still like him because I figure, like alcohol and Christianity, sexism was just a phase. But people like you take it serious. I notice by your last name that you’re an Italian, and I think almost every girl I’ve made love to has been an Italian. How does it feel to know that half-breeds and niggers are fucking your women? (Pontius, 1997: no page)
As one reads through the skateboarding magazine Big Brother, one can find many attempts to outrageously offend: there is an advertisement for ‘Fuct’ with a nearly naked Penthouse Pet of the Year, covered only by three ‘Fuct’ stickers. A part of the copy reads, ‘For all your sexual, perverted, sexist, racist, purist, anarchist, separatist, blasphemous, nihilist needs.’ It is an ad for skateboard ‘street wear’ (1997 (October): no page). Or there is the ad for Shorty’s™ (a distributor): This ad is for Quickies™ (‘removable shield speed bearings’) which displays what appears to be a vagina and anus stuffed with Quickies products. The disclaimer states: ‘Attention Parents: This is not a real human anus and vagina in this ad. [Below that:] Attention Readers: I hope you enjoy this issue. Despite what we just told your parents, it will probably be our last’ (1995: no page).
The obvious attempts to shock, titillate and, ultimately, sell products to young skateboarders capitalizes on the ‘outlaw’ image of skateboarding. The content in many ads, letters to the editor and articles (such as the ‘The Second Annual Bong Olympics’) is anti-authority, in every possible theme, so that, as it shocks and offends, it creates a feeling of adolescent kinship. The message is: us against the Other, however the Other may be defined. As evidenced, homophobia, sexism and racism can be blatant, but they can also be subtle: Kusz (forthcoming) has provided a compelling case that, in BMX bike riding, ‘the individuals who practice these activities and the representational strategies used to construct [“whiteness”]’ have made this very whiteness ‘a racially neutral category’ (ms., p. 25). ‘Whiteness,’ in Kusz’s view, has become an assumed dominant category such that in much research on extreme sports, ‘the issue of the racial identity of BMXers is almost always unnoticed or not of interest to viewers of the sporting activity’ (ms., p. 17).
Emerging Arriving Sport: Some Conclusions
There are many issues and choices facing those involved with alternative and extreme sports. Practitioners, organizers, corporations, media and spectators are all concerned with the emergence, and successful arrival, of their favorite sports. The people involved in the sports obviously have a vested interest in issues that are both familiar (having seen the mainstream sports models) and singular. But another group—scholars, particularly sports and popular culture scholars—needs to voice its concerns for the future of these sports. Whereas many of the world’s mainstream sports are established and solidified in their rules, organizational structures and informal practices, alternative and extreme sports are simultaneously emerging and arriving, some of them as postmodern forms. When the various constituencies in particular sports are not in agreement, problems are common. Sometimes, the problems are not unlike those in mainstream sports. Where will they receive funding? How will they gain support while still retaining control over the conditions of participation? How will they attract the biggest and best audience? How is it possible to make entry into and power over the sports more egalitarian—open for all? But alternative sports also face issues and challenges that are rare in mainstream sports. How might they establish credibility and gain regional, national and worldwide acceptance? How might they retain their cutting-edge aspects while establishing mass appeal? How can they resist the hyper-competitive American model for sport when their sport is inherently tied to lifestyles at least partially characterized by resistance to dominant culture?
Additionally, a few researchers are looking at some of the issues that surround alternative sports, seeing in the sports opportunities to expand our understanding of why and how humans seek out ever-more sensational practices. Issues of authenticity, subcultural formation, body culture, popular cultural trends and practices—all these, and more, a few (usually) younger scholars are examining. But, oftentimes, the tools we use to apprehend new practices are more appropriate for older practices. Thus, it is important for scholars studying these new sport forms to immerse themselves in a vast new array of tool kits which may more aptly reflect the practices of the (usually) younger practitioners.
It is not enough for established scholars to look at youthful practices. While the points of view from anyone may be judged for proper fit, actual practitioners (or participant observers) are needed to tell about the nuances of the sports from insider points of views. Youthful scholars may also be better able to contextualize the new and ever-changing experience of youth so that more readers may understand music, opposition, freedom and thrill aspects of youth culture more empathically.
The situation seems highly fitting: a new set of issues for a new set of sport forms as we enter the new millennium.