Living on the Edge: Extreme Sports and their Role in Society

Living on the Edge: Extreme Sports and their Role in Society

Page Type Page Type: Article

Living on the Edge: Extreme Sports and their Role in Society

With regard to extreme sports, the perception of the general public is that people who choose to take risks are irresponsible ‘adrenaline junkies’ who are ultimately a burden to society. When a person takes unnecessary risks, and becomes injured or in need of rescue, the expenses for coming to their aid are often borne by taxpayers. It should not be surprising then, that these same taxpayers question why they should have to pay for these seemingly foolish actions. A backcountry rescue after skiers trigger an avalanche, for example, will cost thousands of dollars. Skateboarders cause damage to both private and public property, and injure themselves. While these issues have been discussed at great length in the media, rarely does discussion focus on the negative impact of limiting access to these types of risky sports. What would be the effect on society if we made it more difficult for people to engage in these types of activities? In fact, by curbing a person’s passions and limiting access to their chosen sports–even those the public may consider risky– these athletes may well find outlets for their energy that is much more burdensome to society.

While it is true that extreme sports do not appeal to the masses, there are still a significant number of people to whom these activities are an important and fulfilling part of their lives. It is our differences that make a society interesting, so while it may not be for everyone, high-risk activities contribute to the diversity of our culture. We all crave adventure to some degree or another. As author, outdoorsman, and Idaho State University faculty member, Ron Watters explains in his essay “The Wrong Side of the Thin Edge”, everyone needs a little adventure. But some people need more than the normal forms of life’s excitement and take it one step further, participating in high-risk activities- sports played on the edge, where the consequences are far greater, and where as the great American mountaineer and outdoor philosopher Willi Unsoeld once said, ‘It has to be real enough to kill you.’ (258) Psychologist Frank Farley has studied thrill seeking risk-takers for decades, and has developed the term “Type T” (for thrill seeking). Farley describes Type T personality types as "risk-takers and adventurers who seek excitement and stimulation wherever they can find or create it." (qtd. in Roberts)

Type T’s are not just the mountain climbing daredevils of the world however. They are often our best inventors, entrepreneurs and explorers. They are CEOs, surgeons, and civil rights leaders. Take high altitude mountaineer Dr. Kenneth Kamler for example, a New York microsurgeon and listed in the New York Guide to Best Doctors as well as in Who's Who in America. We wouldn’t be the progressive, vibrant society we are today if no one was willing to take risks. Farley argues that history's most crucial events are shaped by Type T individuals exhibiting Type T behaviour, from Boris Yeltsin to Martin Luther King, Jr. The act of emigration, he says, is an intrinsically risky endeavor that selects individuals who are high in sensation seeking. Consequently, countries built upon immigrant population--America, Canada, Australia--probably have an above-average level of risk takers. He warns that much of the current effort to minimize risk and risk taking itself runs the risk of eliminating "a large part of what made this country great in the first place." (qtd. in Roberts)

But for all their positive attributes, Type T personalities also have a dark side. They often bore easily, and without other options their craving for stimulation can lead them to abuse drugs and alcohol, gamble, or engage in other destructive behaviours. Marvin Zuckerman, a psychologist at the University of Delaware and a pioneer in the study of risk’s biological roots notes that without healthy psychological outlets, “the main forms of sensation seeking include sex, drugs, heavy drinking, gambling, and reckless driving." (qtd. in Roberts) People who engage in extreme sports do take risks, but there are far more dangerous ‘highs’ they could be seeking. Rock climbing, mountain biking and snowboarding offer a high that can only be achieved through self discipline, hard work, and a healthy lifestyle. People who are serious about extreme sports are highly trained athletes who take care of their bodies and tend to be very safety conscious.

There is evidence to show that the Type T personality is something people are born with. It isn’t a lifestyle choice. In fact risk taking has been linked to levels of dopamine, a chemical found in the brain that regulates mood and pleasure. Published research conducted by Dr. Ernest Noble of the University of California links the D2 and D4 dopamine receptor genes to risk-taking behaviour. After his 1998 study, Noble estimated that 20 per cent of people are born with the D2 dopamine receptor while 30 per cent are born with both the D2 and the D4 dopamine receptors. (CBC Online Archives)

The predisposition to risk-taking is not a new genetic development. It is likely hardwired into our evolutionary makeup from ancient times, when our survival depended upon the ability to hunt and defend ourselves from attack from predators or other humans. We have been successful in eliminating the vast majority of risk from our daily lives: seatbelts, airbags, and other safety advancements have greatly reduced the dangers associated with driving a car. Most people wear helmets when they bike and rollerblade. Coffee cups even warn us now that the beverage we are about to enjoy is extremely hot. As Watters explains:

The world has become far too safe, and heretofore unknown lands are mapped in far too much detail. As a consequence, we need as many outlets as possible for people to participate in challenging outdoor activities. We need wilderness lands; we need rock climbing areas; we need wild rivers; we need outdoor schools, and given proper environmental safeguards, we need free and unfettered access to outdoor areas. The right to risk is unalienable. It makes our society healthier and more vibrant. (259)

It is getting increasingly difficult to take any risks in the course of a day, and yet we still have this innate need for exhilaration. Without relatively safe outlets for this drive, people predisposed to risk taking behaviors will seek out other activities, with potentially greater personal, social, and economic consequences.

Take for example an extreme mountain biker who experiences a serious fall. He may be badly injured, but the overall scope and consequence to society as a whole is relatively small. A medical team will attend the victim and transport him to a hospital, where he will be cared for. He will likely take some time off work to recuperate. There could be some strain on the immediate family in the short term but before long, life will return to normal. What might happen if the North Shore trails were closed to mountain biking? Might the same man stop by the casino on his way home from work in search of a little excitement? Might he then return there on the weekend in an attempt to stave off boredom? If he is predisposed to risk-taking behaviour, it might not be long before he is gambling beyond his means as he seeks his next ‘high.’ Gambling addiction is a serious problem that can quickly devastate individuals, destroy marriages, break up families and lead to other addictions and health problems. Many people never recover and become a long term drain on the public purse as they require rehabilitation, welfare, and often expensive, ongoing medical care.

It is easy for the issue of health to be overshadowed by the more dramatic problems like addiction for example, but it is an issue that should be of particular concern to the taxpaying public. Consider the kids in the skateboard park. Without the park at the local community center where they can practice and refine their skills, they might follow the lead of many of their peers, opting for a more sedentary existence playing video games which has proven links to obesity. In a study published in the June 2004 issue of the journal Obesity Research, researchers from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University Hospital Zurich present a strong association between playing electronic video games and childhood obesity in school-aged Swiss children. “Childhood obesity has increased fivefold in the past 20 years,” said Dr. Peter Katzmarzyk of the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation. “Opportunities for physical activity for children are critical to turning that trend around, and avoiding heart disease and other health problems down the road.” In a day and age where heart disease and type 2 Diabetes are on the rise, we really shouldn’t be discouraging anyone from pursuing physical activities. The long-term costs associated with treating the inevitable outcome of obesity and heart disease are far greater than the cost of setting a few broken arms and repainting a few railings.

Instead of shunning and discouraging extreme athletes, we should celebrate them for their differences and do what we can to support them as they climb higher, go faster and push the limits of human endurance and athleticism. As T.S. Elliot once said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” With public support, extreme athletes can expand our boundaries and contribute to our diverse and evolving society. By curbing their passions and limiting access to activities some consider too dangerous, we may be inviting even greater risk in the form of addictions, crime and health problems the end result of which is a heavy burden for society to bear.

Works Cited

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (June 30 2004) Electronic Game Use is Associated with Childhood Obesity 12 March 2006. Press release.

“Hardwired for Thrills – Extreme Sports: Faster, Riskier, More Outrageous.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Online Archives. 25 Feb. 1998. 12 March 2006.

Heart and Stroke Foundation (26 May 2005). Canada gets a “D” in Physical Activity: Report Card Released =news&From=SubCategory.>
12 March 2006. Press release.

Roberts, Paul. “Risk.” Psychology Today Nov/Dec 1994. 12 March 2006

Watters, Ron. “The Wrong Side of the Thin Edge.” To the Extreme: Alternative Sports, Inside and Out. Ed. Robert E. Rinehart and Synthia Sydnor. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003: 258-259.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 21-40 of 52

MountaingirlBC - Aug 10, 2006 6:37 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: A copy of theory

Interesting... I didn't come upon the TypeE theory while I was researching.


igneouscarl - Aug 10, 2006 7:13 am - Voted 10/10


I like the idea that 'the right to risk is unalienable'. Nice article, thanks.


paulh - Aug 10, 2006 9:01 am - Voted 10/10

E or T

are you ready to say who is right or wrong. I dont think so. you better check into my health plan before you judge


mvs - Aug 10, 2006 9:23 am - Voted 10/10

great article

Though I am a little embarassed to be one of the folks who seeks risk and adventure in the hills, which does nothing to further mankind. I can't help but envy those entrepreneurs and inventors in business or science who have similar dopamine receptors! :-p.

To fantasize a bit, now everyone will want these receptors. The modern, rock-climbing, surfing CEO making synergistic deals on the SAT phone from Baffin Island is a mass-marketed ideal. Get ready for the newly-recepted, amped up hordes seeking to emulate the climbers on the cliffs!


paulh - Aug 10, 2006 9:44 am - Voted 10/10

not quite

I realy dont think you know what your talking about when it comes to receptors or THE BRAIN.IF you would know what the hell bc was thalking about? go back to school>


MoapaPk - Aug 10, 2006 3:05 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: not quite

Maybe you could give us a few schooling pointers, starting with "your" vs. "you're".


mvs - Aug 10, 2006 3:33 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: not quite

Hi Paul, I was referring to the neural receptors that MountainGirlBC mentioned in her article. From the text: "...links the D2 and D4 dopamine receptor genes to risk-taking behaviour." Perhaps we should go back to school together!


supermarmot - Aug 15, 2006 3:05 am - Voted 10/10

Re: not quite



MountaingirlBC - Aug 10, 2006 6:42 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Interesting Perspective...

I'm with you on this Chief. I don't consider myself a risk taker either. But I know that that's just my own perception and that most people would not agree with me. If I'm doing it for the adreneline rush or the thrills, I'm unaware of it. This isn't just something I choose to do. It's who I am. But that doesn't change the fact that I am preceived by many to be "reckless and irrisponsible." The article was written more to address these types of judgements that we face from people who don't 'get it.'

Cy Kaicener

Cy Kaicener - Aug 10, 2006 7:45 pm - Voted 9/10

Living on the Edge

Excellent Insight. I enjoyed reading it. Lets hope that bragging rights dont replace enjoyment of the mountains


rhyang - Aug 10, 2006 11:15 pm - Hasn't voted

There are two kinds of people in the world...

Those who dichotomize, and those who don't !


piz simon

piz simon - Aug 12, 2006 8:34 am - Hasn't voted

interesting thoughts

well, i think it also depends where you live. i live in switzerland and here, most people appreciate (extreme)mountainsports, since it's a large income sector for us (tourism). sure there are some reckless-people here too who put themselves and others i danger while not having the right skills for their adventure or simply overestimate their abilities.
one of the best examples is the matterhorn. every year, at least a dozen of people die because they weren't prepared well, or didn't have the right equipment, etc. for their adventure. most of them are mountaineers from other countries. the point is, our national rescue sends them, when they are rescued, or their relatives a bill at the end. in my point of view a totally fair action.
see, we have this system were you pay about $30 a year (to the national rescue association called REGA)and if you have an accident or get lost they will rescue you, and the expenses are covered (solidary-system). even if you are not swiss (depends on the country) you can get this card.
logically some smart-asses thought that they can pull shit even if they had a REGA card, well guess what! if they see that you were poorly equipped or someother things look quiet "wrong", they might do a police investigation. and if they find out that you were acting careless or reckless, they might charge you with a fine (...if you are still alive).


MountaingirlBC - Aug 12, 2006 6:05 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: interesting thoughts

Interesting point about your economy. It's becoming more important here (Vancouver, BC) especially with the Olympics coming up so I will be interested to see if public perception shifts any in the coming years. Here, no one gets charged for rescues... the thinking behind it being that people won't call for help or will wait too long to if they know they're going to get a bill. This could be the subject of another article come to think of it. I'd like to see some kind of tax imposed on tourists (since they seem to be the ones who get in the most trouble and need the most rescuing as you've pointed out) to cover rescue fees. Then make it free for the rest of us. You make an excellent point about preparation. I think if you were obviously stupid you should get a bill.


Dustiano - Aug 12, 2006 1:15 pm - Voted 10/10

Type-E or T Personality

I have done a lot of research in this area and found this article to be a great jump off point for people who want to look further into the subject. Wonderful write up!

GJS - Aug 13, 2006 3:48 am - Voted 10/10

Having Been There

In 1982, at the age of 29, I was nearly killed in a mountaineering accident. I could give a list of my injuries, the amount of time spent in the ICU, the hospital, and rehab, etc., but in a way all of that misses the point -- because once the physical pain is over it is over. It is the philosophical and psychological issues that last much longer.

Suffice it to say that I was told that the technical medical term for my condition was "train wreck." By most conventional medical wisdom I should have died before reaching the hospital, but for some reason I didn't. Interestingly in light of granite4brains' post, it later emerged that the closest they came during the whole series of events to actually losing me was caused by a nurse's mistake.

As for the public costs, the episode cost my insurance company about $40,000, and I paid several thousand more for deductibles, copays, etc. I seem to recall that I was billed a couple of thousand dollars for the rescue, but I may be wrong about that because it would have been so thoroughly mixed in with all of the other charges.

While I was still in the hospital, I happened to see a news item on television, describing how police in India had shot and killed some people by firing into a crowd during a food riot. I had to ask myself: How could they have gone to this much trouble, invested this much money and technology, to keep me alive when they could have easily written me off, and when people were still getting killed solely for the crime of being pissed off because they didn't have enough to eat. I still haven't found a good answer to that. I'm grateful for this MGBC article because it comes the closest of anything I've seen to providing any justification at all.

For a while, while still in rehab, I promised myself that I'd never go near any similar activities again. But I started trail hiking once I was back in shape -- or even as a way of getting back in shape -- expanded to exploring off-trail in canyons in southern Utah and northern Arizona, which became my main obsession through the late eighties and nineties, and, in the last few years, I've been going back to the mountains more than at any time since my twenties. I'm still far more conservative in my choices than I was in my twenties but, yes, I think that I'm in better shape than most people my age and a lot who are younger. Maybe I'll outlive many of them as a result.

I'm not sure to this day that I learned anything from the experience that could benefit anyone else. If I could make one suggestion, it would be this: Don't become so obsessed with the official goals -- bagging all of the Colorado fourteeners, finishing all of the Seven Summits or even any of them, etc. -- goals which are largely set by peer pressure, media, websites, and other people -- that you lose sight of your own reasons for doing what you're doing or the beauty of where you are. If you're not on the path that you belong on, or if the beauty is no longer there, then there is no justification and it's not worth the risk or the bother.


MountaingirlBC - Aug 13, 2006 4:45 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Having Been There

Thanks for sharing your personal perspective GJS and especially for this:

"Don't become so obsessed with the official goals -- bagging all of the Colorado fourteeners, finishing all of the Seven Summits or even any of them, etc. -- goals which are largely set by peer pressure, media, websites, and other people -- that you lose sight of your own reasons for doing what you're doing or the beauty of where you are. If you're not on the path that you belong on, or if the beauty is no longer there, then there is no justification and it's not worth the risk or the bother."

It's something I had to call myself on this year. It's easy to get caught up in it for the wrong reasons. If you aren't doing it for your own deep personal reasons, you're quite right... it's not worth it... not worth the risk to yourself or the pain we put our loved ones through when things go terribly wrong.

Thx again.

Aaron Dyer

Aaron Dyer - Aug 13, 2006 9:57 pm - Hasn't voted

Thrill Seeking

I saw something along these lines on TV not long ago and it was interesting. I had always found it odd that most people look at climbers/mountaineers/skiers as thrill seekers as if that is the only reason we do these things. I will be the first to admit that there is something not normal with a lot us, and maybe thrill seeking is behind it and I don't know it myself, but thrills are not what I am usually looking for in the mountains. I guess I'm usually looking for myself. Just my thoughts, but this is interesting, thank you for posting it.


MoapaPk - Aug 14, 2006 1:32 am - Voted 10/10

Extreme Sports Drinks

We need a follow-up on "Extreme Sports Drinks and Their Role in Society". In particular, I've been wondering about Gatorade X series. How are these drinks different from normal Gatorade? I bought some green X, and as far as I can tell, it contains the same small amount of electrolytes and sugar.


supermarmot - Aug 15, 2006 3:48 am - Voted 10/10

"wonder if anyone has ever bothered to consider the cumulative health care costs associated with such a life style vs that of a climber."

it would be a very interesting comparison to make. i'm with you in thinking that the mcdonalds eating dick cheneys of the world end up costing society more (at least where there is socialistic health care). the problem comes again (and always) to the way public opinions are swayed: only the most obvious things get any attention. it is easy for the public to isolate climbing and other extreme sports as voluntary health hazards, while obesity and sedentary lifestyles (also self-inflicted for the most part) are more passive in causing health problems.

the public would be much more sympathetic in dealing with, say, a 240 lb woman suffering from type ii diabetes and atherosclerosis than a 'reckless' backcountry skier buried in an avalanche. it's because the folly of the skier is so obvious: he knowingly went out of bounds, while the undoing of the obese woman was a consequence of years of unhealthy living and self-indulgence.
both voluntary actions, one is just more obvious.

you make a good point that often times the extreme sports that hurt otherwise healthy people are the very reason that they were healthy in the first place.

thanks for this very well written and informative article; i hadn't thought about it from this perspective before:)



MoapaPk - Aug 15, 2006 4:40 am - Voted 10/10


I'm not sure they (insurance companies) are yet singling out back-country skiers, but if they do, it is probably because that behavior is easily identifiable, and has a clearly-defined dollar value if the skier must be rescued from an avalanche. The health costs associated with lifestyle choices are a lot more vague, and harder to assess from a distant insurance office.

Nonetheless, really obese people, who try to buy health insurance (outside of a "share-the-risk" big employer setting) are likely to find really high premiums. I know two such people who were told they were uninsurable (one already had type ii diabetes).

Even more striking is the actual cost of "unhealthy people" to society. In the 80's, it was found that smokers actually had a lower net health care cost than non-smokers, because smokers tended to die quickly at an earlier age. Most health care costs in the US are consumed by the last 6 months of peoples' lives.

And now for the piece de resistance. There is a very poor correlation bewteen atherosclerosis and diet. The main correlation is with "bad" genetics. I've known marathoner-vegetarians who had to have quadruple bypass operations. The original Framingham study, which everyone likes to quote, showed a measly 36% correlation between serum cholesterol and thickness of atherosclerotic coating. Buried deep in that study was a failure to find any dietary link to serum cholesterol levels.

And then there was the MRFIT study, in which a fraction the patients were guided and given dietary and health interventions, successfully increasing their fraction of healthy foods, increasing their exercise, vitamin intake, etc. Result: the treated patients showed no increased longevity compared to the control group -- none.

Viewing: 21-40 of 52