It's about spirituality, not sports

The X Games fulfill the human need to test limits and risk death at a time when technology has created the illusion that we're in control.

Published June 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

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 mph.

Beyond this summer's baseball scores or news of PGA tournaments or tennis matches, something is going on in the world that newspapers and television sportscasters barely know how to report as "sports." But this week the wise guys with orange hair and blue sports jackets at ESPN and ABC Sports are heading out to San Francisco, to televise what they call "The X Games" -- a tournament of rock-climbing, bungee-jumping, sky-surfing, street luge and other death-defying exploits. It's an odd idea, since extreme sports have arisen in opposition to regular athletics.

In many extreme sporting events, it's true, there are celebrities, even organized competitions. But while other American kids might want to get into the NBA and make a million bucks, most persons who are addicted to extreme sports belong on a very different page of the morning paper -- not the sports page, but maybe the religion page, instead.

Today, when technology increasingly separates humans from nature, there is a growing hunger to fear nature, to remember what ancient people knew: nature's power. In an earlier time, Herman Melville wrote a novel about a whale lurking in the sea. In the century since "Moby Dick" was written, we have learned that whales are vulnerable to human will. So we love whales now. And yet, some part of us wishes we could fear the sea again.

Consider it the dark side of the environmental movement. Suddenly there are bestsellers about winter's wrath. Sebastian Junger writes in "The Perfect Storm" about fishermen off the Nova Scotia coast who encounter waves more than 100 feet tall. Or there is Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air," about a deadly storm that enveloped climbers near the summit of Mount Everest.

It takes money to reach the top of Mount Everest. Today there are accountants and doctors and advertising executives willing to pay. The base camp of Mount Everest is crowded with Japanese and Germans, as well as Americans. Often these adventurers bring along cell phones and fax machines.

The line separating the adventurer from the athlete has conventionally been financial. Think of the very rich 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 an element of risk -- real danger. Athletics can be dangerous -- think of football or boxing or hockey. But the point of such sports is winning or losing, and the game must always be played within rules.

The adventurer, by contrast, plays an opponent more terrible -- call it life or death.

Today, in "extreme sports," the point is less winning or losing than risking and feeling. Gravity, cold, the sky become the opponent.

Consider the street luge, riding essentially a skateboard at 40, 50, 60 mph, steering only with the body's weight. Participants speak of 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 ventured between hot and cold. For a time he bicycled in the desert. Then this young man wound up in Alaska, where he ended up dead.

Why exactly, we never learn. All we know for certain is that here was a young man from a comfortable American suburb who needed to find himself, or to find God, in the far extremities of hot and cold.

I know a kid, an "adrenaline junkie," he calls himself. Every weekend, he comes to the forest 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 herself falling, falling?

At a moment of history when human beings govern nature, many need to experience hot and cold, to feel the rush of air, to prove to ourselves -- at the risk of death -- that we are alive.

) Pacific News Service

By Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

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