Definition and culture
Extreme sports, or X sports, encompass a wide and growing range of activities from bungy jumping to skateboarding, snowboarding and whitewater kayaking. Common to all of these sports are risk-taking, pushing limits (physical and legal) and having fun.
Extreme sports are individual rather than team focused. The core values are testing oneself and meeting personal challenges, usually through close engagement with the natural environment. Extreme sports have a strong counter-cultural element, with participants often snubbing authority and conventional sporting values. Men have dominated the extreme sports, which often promote traditional notions of masculinity. However, in the 2010s women’s participation was increasing.
Surfing to kiteboarding
The rise of extreme sports in New Zealand was closely associated with the surfing community. Early local practitioners, such as Ton Deken, Pip Bourke, Dave Smithers and John Neeson, learned to surf at Raglan, near Hamilton, in the 1960s. They experimented with the size of their surfboards, cutting the length so they could go faster and create new tricks.
During the 1970s many surfers began skiing. They transferred the skills they had learnt on the water to snow, performing new feats like jumping off bluffs and doing 180- or 360-degree turns in the air. With the American invention of the snowboard, the object then became to ‘surf the mountain’.
From the 1980s windsurfing and, later, kiteboarding – in which a surfboard is powered by a kite – provided new opportunities to push limits and perform tricks.
Extreme as it gets
In the mid-1970s New Zealander Mike Firth filmed American Jeff Campbell and Canadian Blair Trenholme skiing down and hang gliding over the Tasman Glacier. The 1977 film of their exploits, Off the Edge, did much to popularise extreme sports in New Zealand, and Campbell later said, ‘New Zealand is as extreme as you can get.’1
Skateboarding and longboarding
In the late 1970s skateboarding became the latest extreme sport. Among the New Zealanders who shone was Lee Ralph. From the mid-1980s he became famous in the Los Angeles skateboarding scene.
During the early 2010s longboarding gained an offbeat following. Longboards were large, heavy skateboards with increased stability. Longboarders raced on streets and in carparks, often at night when there was less traffic. Critics condemned their speed and antics as dangerous, but longboarders were dismissive of this view. They saw the sport as a social activity and enjoyed improving their skills in a group setting.
Skydiving and BASE jumping
Skydiving involves jumping from a plane and deploying a parachute to control descent. During freefall, before the parachute is opened, jumpers perform manoeuvres such as group formations.
BASE jumping also requires a parachute but is different from skydiving in that jumps are made from fixed objects. The acronym BASE is derived from the objects that may be jumped from: buildings, antennae, spans (bridges) and earth (cliffs). Jumping from heights as small as 60 metres, there is little room for error before the parachute is activated. In 2012 two New Zealanders died in BASE jumping accidents overseas.
Australasian psychiatric research on 120 base jumpers and mountaineers in 2011 found they were insensitive to stress and anxiety in the face of danger. The study showed individuals scored high for thrill-seeking and low for harm avoidance. No other group studied by psychiatrists scored so low on harm avoidance. ‘For these guys’, reported Dr Erik Monasterio, ‘accident and death is almost a part of the sport.’ 2 More than 90% of the study’s participants had witnessed a death.
The American cable channel ESPN has played an important role in spreading and popularising extreme sports. ESPN annually sponsors and broadcasts the Summer X Games and the Winter X Games. In 2013 the summer sports were skateboarding, Moto X (motocross), BMX (bicycle motocross) and rally cross. The winter sports were snowboarding, snowmobile and skiing. In 2008 Wānaka skier Jossi Wells won New Zealand’s first X Games silver medal in the slopestyle event. Palmerston North Moto X rider Levi Sherwood won X Games silver medals in 2010, 2012 and 2015, and a gold medal in 2017.
New Zealand X events
Between 2006 and 2008 Wellington hosted an annual extreme sports event called Vodafone X*Air, featuring skateboarding and BMX, alongside a music festival. The event closed after the sponsor withdrew their support.
The 100% Pure New Zealand Winter Games (similar to the international Winter X Games) was first run in the South Island in 2009 and has been held every two years since then.
With a strong following among white, middle-class males aged 13 to 34, extreme sports attract a high level of corporate sponsorship. Marketing highlights the risk taking and individualism of the sports.