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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
New Zealand’s adventure sports scene began in the 1970s and sought to provide the general public with opportunities to engage in extreme pursuits. The idea was to give ‘sane people safe access to the adrenalin antics of a mad minority.’1
The trigger was the invention of New Zealander Bill Hamilton’s jet boat in the 1950s. It led to the creation in 1970 of commercial jet boating on the fast-flowing Shotover and Kawarau rivers in the South Island’s Queenstown area. There, groups of thrill-seekers were piloted at high speeds around giant boulders and through swirling rapids. This was followed by white-water rafting in 1974.
A. J. Hackett’s love of extreme sports began in his childhood. In 2010 he recalled, ‘One of the things I used to enjoy most when I was a kid was jumping off bridges and cliffs. There was a limit you could go to. After about 40 to 50 feet …[when] you hit the water it really hurt.’2
In 1988 bungy (sometimes ‘bungee’) jumping provided a new thrill. Inspired by the vine-jumping of Vanuatu’s Pentecost Islanders, the first modern bungy jump was made in 1977, off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, by Oxford University’s Dangerous Sports Club members. New Zealand speed skier Alan John (A. J.) Hackett saw footage of the group and, with the aid of scientists, developed safe latex rubber cords that could be used commercially.
In 1987 Hackett bungy jumped off the Eiffel Tower in Paris, a stunt that drew global attention. The following year he set up a bungy-jumping operation on Kawarau Bridge, near Queenstown. Such was the popularity of the activity that he soon opened others, both locally and overseas. By 2012 some 350,000 people had bungy jumped in Queenstown.
Hackett’s success led to new activities in and around Queenstown. These included tandem skydiving (where beginners jump with a tutor), tandem hang gliding, river surfing, parasailing, canyoning and abseiling. All these pursuits led Queenstown to call itself ‘the world’s adventure capital’.
Similar operations were set up elsewhere in New Zealand, including black-water rafting in Waitomo Caves, hot-air ballooning above the Canterbury Plains and even bungy jumping off Auckland’s Sky Tower.
In the 1980s American Jon Imhof arrived in Queenstown to go snowboarding. He liked the town and decided to stay for the summer. He missed not being able to surf, so he came up with the idea of using his bodyboard to surf the waves of the Kawarau River, inventing the sport of river surfing. In 1989 he started the first commercial river surfing operation on the river.
By the early 2000s New Zealand was internationally renowned for its adventure sports tourism. However, the 2008 drowning of a British tourist in a riverboarding accident, the death of nine people in a skydiving plane crash in 2010 and a hot-air balloon disaster in 2012, which killed 11 people, raised public concern about lax safety practices. Simultaneous reports of widespread drug use within the sector both reinforced its counter-cultural image and increased safety anxieties.
The government responded by more tightly regulating the adventure tourism industry and warning operators that if they did not clean up drug use it would introduce mandatory drug testing.
Booth, Douglas and Holly Thorpe, eds. Berkshire encyclopedia of extreme sports. Great Barrington: Berkshire Publishing, 2007.
This is a detailed history of bungy (bungee) jumping.
This page outlines the history of Queenstown’s adventure tourism industry.
This timeline lists key events in New Zealand surfing history.