|GOING TO EXTREMES|
May 19, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service considers the appeal of dangerous sports.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Your dentist is climbing Mount Everest. The mother of four is mountain-biking through the desert. The boy next door skateboards on asphalt at 60 miles an hour. Beyond the evening news or the morning paper, there is something going on in the world that I barely know how to report.
In those parts of the world where technology protects humans from nature, there is a growing hunger to fear nature, to remember what ancient people knew: Nature's terrible power. (Waves crashing)
In an earlier century, Herman Melville wrote about a whale lurking in the sea. In the century since "Moby Dick," we have learned that whales are vulnerable to human will. So we love whales now, but we wonder, how shall we fear nature?
Consider it the dark side of the environmental movement. Suddenly there are best-sellers in the bookstores about winter's wrath. Sebastian Junger writes in "The Perfect Storm" about fishermen off the Nova Scotia coast, facing waves over 100 feet high. Or there is Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," about a deadly storm that enveloped climbers near the summit of Mount Everest. It takes money to get to the top of Mount Everest.
Today there are accountants and doctors and advertising executives willing to pay. The base camp of Mount Everest is filled with Japanese and Germans, as well as Americans. They bring along cell phones and fax machines.
The line separating the athlete from the adventurer has traditionally been financial. Think of the very rich today who fly their hot-air balloons across the sky, only to be rescued, at taxpayer expense, when their adventure deflates.
More importantly, what separates the adventurer from the athlete is the element of risk, the danger. Athletics can be dangerous-- think of football or boxing or hockey-- but the point is always winning or losing, and the game must be played within rules. The adventurer, by contrast, plays an opponent more furious; call it life or death.
Now there are sports-- kids call them extreme sports-- where the point is less winning or losing than risking: Rock climbing, bungee jumping, sky surfing, street luge. The list keeps growing. Gravity, cold, the sky, even death becomes the opposing team.
Consider the street luge, riding on a skateboard at 40, 50, 60 miles an hour, steering with your body's weight. Participants speak of the need for speed, the exhilaration of gravity.
In his best book, "Into the Wild," Jon Krakauer tells the story of a teenager from a comfortable Maryland suburb who ventures between hot and cold. For a time, he bicycles in the desert. Then he ends up in Alaska, where he ends up dead, why exactly, we never know.
All that we learn for certain is that here was a young man from an American suburb who needed to find himself, or to find God, in the extremities of hot and cold. (Fanfare playing) this summer, the guys at ESPN and ABC Sports, the guys in their blue blazers, are coming to San Francisco to televise what they call the X-games, an odd idea, since extreme sports have emerged in opposition to regular athletics.
In many extreme sporting events, it's true, there are celebrities, even organized competitions. But while an inner-city kid might want to get into the NBA and make a million bucks, most persons I know who are addicted to extreme sports belong on a very different page of the morning paper-- not the sports page, maybe the religion page instead. I know a kid; an adrenaline junkie, he calls himself.
Every weekend, he comes to the forest for hours, all alone. He leaps through the trees from limb to limb. How to explain the human need to jump through a tree, or to climb a terrible ice mountain? How to explain why the bungee jumper howls with pleasure to feel himself falling?
At a moment of history when we humans have governed nature, many need
to experience cold or the heat, to feel the rush of air, to remind ourselves,
at the risk of death, that we are alive.