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Story: Extreme sports and adventure sports

Participants in extreme and adventure sports test themselves – physically and mentally – against natural and urban environments. The New Zealand landscape offers numerous opportunities for these daring activities.

Story by Ben Schrader
Main image: Levi Sherwood competes in the Moto X (motocross) freestyle final at the 2012 Los Angeles X Games

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Extreme sports

Extreme sports – or X sports – include bungy jumping, skateboarding, motocross, white-water kayaking and more. The sports are individual rather than team focused, and participants aim to meet personal challenges.

Surf, ski and skate

The rise of extreme sports in New Zealand was closely associated with the surfing community. In the 1960s surfers experimented with cutting down their surfboards for greater speed and manoeuvrability. In the 1970s they took up skiing and snowboarding. By the late 1970s skateboarding was popular, and windsurfing followed in the 1980s.

Skydiving and BASE jumping

Both skydivers and BASE jumpers make jumps using a parachute to control their descent. Skydivers jump from planes, while BASE jumpers leap from fixed objects such as buildings and cliffs. Because the distances are shorter in BASE jumping there is little room for error in the timing of the parachute’s opening, and the sport is very dangerous.


Internationally the American cable channel ESPN has played an important role in popularising extreme sports by annually sponsoring and broadcasting the Summer X Games and the Winter X Games. New Zealand has also had its own extreme sports events including the 100% Pure New Zealand Winter Games, held in the South Island in 2009 and 2011.

Adventure sports

In the 1970s New Zealand’s burgeoning adventure sports industry began to provide the general public with opportunities to engage in extreme pursuits in a controlled and organised way.

The South Island’s Queenstown was soon calling itself the ‘adventure capital of the world’. Available activities included tandem skydiving, tandem hang gliding, river surfing, parasailing, canyoning and abseiling. Elsewhere in New Zealand punters could go black-water rafting in Waitomo Caves, hot-air ballooning above the Canterbury Plains and bungy jumping off Auckland’s Sky Tower.


In the 2000s a number of accidents raised public concern about poor safety practices in the industry, and the government responded by more tightly regulating adventure tourism.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Extreme sports and adventure sports', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 March 2018)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 5 Sep 2013