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.
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.
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (June 30 2004) Electronic Game Use is Associated with Childhood Obesity http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/07/040701085143.htm
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. http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-41-1727-11912/sports/extreme_sports/clip5
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.