Xtreme planet

There was a terrific piece recently by James Parker in the Boston Globe Ideas section, about the triumph of Xtreme sports — “How America became safe for extremism”. It’s loosely based on a review of a new book by Mat Hoffman, a BMX biker who helped pioneer some of the most fiercely insane Xtreme-sports TV shows:

Hoffman is a legendary BMX freestyler, a pushbike stunt rider whose addiction to aerial activity (he invented, among other tricks, the “flair,” a backflip with a mid-air twist of 180 degrees) sent him up the sheer faces of higher and higher ramps until he finally needed to be towed by motorcycle to get enough speed for take-off.

“The Ride Of My Life” was written, ominously, “with” Mark Lewman, but soon enough we begin to hear what sounds like the muscular, obsessive voice of Hoffman himself: “I didn’t make the spin, came in backwards and sideways, and channeled the full momentum of my upper body into the flatbottom. I spanked the ramp with my head and knocked myself out, bad.” Spanked the ramp. With his head.

… Describing his adventures on a 21-foot-tall quarterpipe ramp, Hoffman writes: “When I did crash, I’d hit and continue bouncing and skipping across the ground a long ways, like a puppet hucked out of a car at freeway speed.” This last image perfectly captures Hoffman’s relationship to his body: It bangs along behind, neglected and ridiculous, as he concentrates his entire energy on the conquest of the vertical, or “vert.” A spleenectomy, shoulder and knee surgeries, endless concussions-he takes an awful lot of punishment to make those few extra feet, and when he finds he can ride no higher, he starts leaping out of planes. Then he begins B.A.S.E. jumping (for “buildings, antennae, spans and earth”) which is “just about as gnarly as it gets.” But hurling himself off bridges and skyscrapers is not quite enough: Hoffman must seek the bleak Norwegian cliff Kjerag, where an experienced B.A.S.E. jumper was killed only weeks before, and do a double backflip off it on his bicycle.

Though I actually really enjoy watching the most berserk Xtreme sports events I can find, I confess I’ve always found the concept a little depressing. It’s almost as if this is nothing but endless platoons of people whose lives are so freakin’ empty that, merely to feel alive for a few seconds, they have to nearly kill themselves. It’s like the most ghastly side-effect of preening American boomtime bloat: We’re a rich and mostly-healthy nation, but are we gonna help all the rest of you out there? Nah. We’d rather just hurt ourselves for pleasure.

Then again, I’m a curmudgeon about this stuff. I am — pun intended — an extremist about extremism. Hell, when I lived in Canada I even used to rail against skiing. I thought it was kind of crazy that our socialized health-care system included fixing the busted femurs of people who had voluntarily decided it would be a good idea to go down a mountain at 80 miles an hour on two sticks. Fine, I figured, you want to ski? Do it on your own dime, not with my taxes; and when you break both your arms and legs, don’t expect me to pay for the doctor to patch you up; you can drag yourself back to the lodge with your lips.

God in heaven, am I ever a crank.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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