This is a wonderful time in which we live, when hobbyists and daredevils and lumberjacks and even ballroom dancers can all claim a piece of the programming pie. All it takes is an activity that produces a winner and fits into a 30-minute format. Thank you, cable. Now anything that's slightly dangerous can make for a viewing experience, activity legitimized as a form of athletics by a TV listing. Those kids in baggy shorts sliding along the top of a park bench on a skateboard? Sport! Those fools jumping off a bridge with ropes around their ankles? Sport! A guy falling out of an airplane, camera affixed to his noggin, who is videotaping a similarly falling partner stunting on a board? By the time you read this, there probably will be competing leagues.
Most of these nontraditional sports, some of which are being showcased by ESPN and ESPN2's current Extreme Games extravaganza (continuing through Saturday), started innocently enough. When we did them as kids, we called them...fun. Did you ever think, as you pedaled your Schwinn over a dirt ramp, that someday it would be called a BMX event and that prize money would be available on a cutthroat tour? Or that roller-skating down the sidewalk (and pitching onto your forehead at every crack in the pavement) would evolve into in-line skating, a more-than-$900-million business with an estimated 20 million participants, maybe half a dozen magazines and a fashion industry behind it? But because this is such a wonderful time we live in, nothing that's truly fun needs to stand on its own, not as long as it can reach 65.6 million homes. Now fun can be franchised, marketed and, above all, sponsored, and 400 Extreme Games athletes can gather in Rhode Island and elsewhere in New England to compete in nine sports for $377,900 in prize money.
The Extreme Games are a kind of election for us viewers. Do we anoint barefoot water-ski jumping as the sport of the 1990s or return it to the show-offs at SeaWorld? How about sport climbing? Does it deserve a network contract, or does it go back to the guys and gals who watched Cliffhanger one time too many? Hard choices loom. Maybe after 46 hours of this, some kind of vote will be in, and we'll have a pro windsurfing loop. Or maybe all our children will grow up wanting to be bungee jumpers. Or maybe it will be street luge, the only kind of downhill racing we know of in which a contestant, harking back to the sport's uncomplicated, butt-boarding, neighborhood-street origins, can say, "Oh, I've knocked on plenty of doors of moving trucks."
Surely more of these alternative sports will catch on and cash in. It's interesting to watch this frontier advance, as the need for fresh sport turns to a kind of organized stunt-work, sanitized and telegenic. Interesting, but maybe a little less fun. There no doubt are kids who prefer the unorganized version in which they sail casually down the street two inches above blurred asphalt, knocking on truck doors.