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Extreme Sports and its Olympic Discontents

Scott Tinley, a two-time Ironman World Champion, is a professor teaching sport humanities courses at San Diego State University. He is the author of several books. His most recent work is Racing the Sunset.

David Kumaritashvili won't look at a camera. If you see yourself in a reflective surface that records the present--it is said in ancient cultures--you will see not only your future but your past.

Kumaritashvili, 46, who competed in luge competitions before the state of Georgia broke from the Soviet Union, wants none of either right now. He has suffered the worst possible of parental fates---the premature loss of a child. And right now in his temporal tragedy, he has nowhere to go. The father suffers the unconscionable and remains in his horrific present.
His 21 year-old son, Nodar, will not be competing in the Vancouver Olympics and will not be coming home to celebrate in his mountain village home of Bakuriana. It is the end of both of their lives as they knew them.

But back at the Whistler Sliding Center in Vancouver, B.C. there is a plywood retaining wall to put up on Curve 16. And other damages to make sense of.

Against all ideological odds, the subculture sports, the often extreme alternative activities of resistant youths have gone main stream. They have enjoined the dominant structures of the Olympic Games. Back in 1998 the IOC courted the snowboarding action-heroes for the Nagano Olympics in an effort to both put the 1994 Tonya and Nancy Show behind them and to lure a younger demographic. The IOC coveted action sports' jouissance and their corporate lemmings, the way they could carry both attitude and altitude. But then snowboarding World Champion, Terje Haakonsen and several other board-sport ideologues said "no thanks," we have our own circuit and championship, our own code, culture and patterns of meaning-making within the world of alternative sporting experiences. Why allow the blue-blazer sect to dress us up, parade us in front of the world, and then put us back in the box until the next Olympiad? There was really no reason to turn Japanese.

But a bunch of "kids" went to Japan anyway and a funny thing happened along the way. Besides Canadian, Ross Rebagliati winning the snowboard giant slalom gold medal but then being disqualified for pot and subsequently reinstated, fast and furious with an attitude was a hit. A year earlier, ESPN's first Winter X-Games in 1997 had signaled that big air meant big money and the counter-culture hold-outs were left placidly lurking in Crested Butte and the backside powder stashes of Grand Teton.

The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics were mired in accusations of IOC bid payoffs and judging biases. SLC, a semi-dry town, would've made it tough for Bode Miller to party at an Olympic level in the shadow of John Smith's temple. Still, the sport of skeleton was reintroduced to the Games for the first time in 54 years and nearly 15,000 people watched the finals of the Men's freestyle skiing moguls competition.

By Turin, 2006, extreme sports were fully articulated with Olympic programming. Individualism, risk, alienation, excitement, and agency snuggled right up with conservative, for-profit nationalism under the cozy shade of NBC Sports. Around the millennium, Generation Y had some 75 million kids between 6 and 24 years old. And many of them wanted to go fast, go big and resist any old school barriers to the spectacular and the dramatic.

Some of the athletes were lured by the fame and fortune (money for nothing and chicks for free) and some were closet phenomenologists (Bode Miller marching to his Thoreauvian childhood). But few understood the conflicting motive of the many elements consorting and conspiring to take action sports out of the woods and put them on a cereal box.

The Winter Olympics wanted to be the X-Games because they reflected central shifts in popular, modern sport ideology-transnationality, creativity and aesthetic expression, elimination of class and ethnic barriers, increased risk, uncertainly and originality. And the X-Games made money for ESPN, its sponsors and its crazy kids who were used to living in 1971 VW buses.

To plant a flag in this new postmodern space on the contested terrain of sport all you had to do was to go Citius, Altius, Fortius - swifter, higher, stronger.

But how were older winter sport forms like luge, ice hockey and speed skating keeping up with the new trend of setting trends? Skating introduced short track competition and hockey just got more physical. Downhill skiing got bumpy and Nordic skiing went to skate-style. Ski jumping had been indiscernible since Moose Barrows was shown weekly on the opening segment of ABC's Wide World of Sport in a spectacular fall near the take-off on the 90 meter platform.

And then there was luge. It is a sport not born of resistant youth looking for ways to set them apart, but from the age-old practice of village kids sliding down a snowy slope on a wooden sled. Its romanticized roots had long been lost in the construction of "matterhorn tracks" but many of the sports' participants still hailed from little towns tucked in idyllic snow-capped settings. The only way for lugers to compete with the qualitative acrobatics of high-flying post-pubescents was to go quantitative-to reach speeds that caused a television audience in the hundred millions to say "damn, look at them boyz go!"

But what collided was more than Nodar Kumaritashvili's body with a metal pole. And while officials have blamed the accident on human error, what the incident signals is an intersection of technology, media, spectacle, spectatorship and human quest. Each force comes with its own political agenda and strategy. Each social institution carries motive inherent to their desires.

Snowboard phenom, Shaun White is a good kid--smart, happy, hard working-the boy next door. And no doubt the white Lamborghini in his garage has not altered his pure enjoyment of what he does and does well. For their part, the athletes know the risks and are willing to take them regardless of motive, reason or perceived irrationality. David Kumaritashvili told a reporter that his son had claimed in youthful bravado "I will either win or die" but then quickly added "they (the officials who designed and controlled the Vancouver track) were testing that track on my son."

The question then asked is this: Are the increasingly consequential performances of extreme sports-90 mph luge runs included--an indication of increased skill, science and physicality? Or is it a paradigmatic shift in what athletes, fans, media, coaches and sponsors expect from this subculture? Does it signal that alt-sport athletes have willingly moved into the realm and role of crash test dummies?

For the most part, athletes accept highly dangerous maneuvers, citing years of practice and preparation. We know what we're doing, they claim. But do they know what forces built that foundational confidence? Was it a corporate house-of-cards? Some promise of upward social mobility? Or some growing need to stand apart, to be accepted within your peer group in a world that is trying its best to incorporate you into some other less-threatening, homogenous and mediated fold? Lest we forget, youth is not a biological category but a cultural classification that is marked by diversity. Nodar's Georgian village does not carry the same material significance as Shaun White's San Diego County Coastal.

But there is a growing blowback to what has become de rigeur in extreme action sports, that hot-winded fiery argument fanned when someone gets hurt. Or worse.
What we see now at the Vancouver Olympics is no different than what is unfolding in the home of David and Dodo Kumaritashvili-an interruption in the natural continuum of life, a break in the momentary immortality of youth and an indictment of every force that fed the fallacy. When a subculture's motto is Go Big or Go Home, some people are sent home even in the act of trying to go very, very big. It's not first class. It's a coffin in the icy hold of a plane.

Was it worth it? We might ask those that survive a youth of extreme sports while musing from the sidelines in a wheel chair or with enough metal body parts to set off airport alarms. The thoughtful and the enlightened will say hell yeah. The dead don't say anything.

The Olympic Games package the eternal; its signifying flame and its youthful vibrancy in showcasing the always and already best of the best. And though officials and news organizations are to be commended for not sloughing it away, no one seems to know where to place the tragedy within the standard narrative themes. I suppose that officials and spectators forgot just what might happen if the notion of higher and faster were taken literally and combined with rampant scientization in sport. It's not quite gladiators with carbon fiber shields but the analog is there if you want to run with it.

Now, where does a movement like extreme sports go when they have tested the limits with the death of one of their own? Do they go as Daedalus, NASCAR and organized sailing toward a one-design with rational limits and a focus on strategy over amplitude? Or do they push right on through to the sun and enjoy the benefits of flight?

Until the next Icarus.

Hemingway was intrigued with the blood sports of boxing and bullfighting not for their violence or dramatic spectacle but for how the relationships unfolded within an arena that had more consequences than rankings in a league. Perhaps it's time that alterative sports reconsider the intricate relationships between athletes, fans, manufacturers, media, governing bodies, corporate sponsors and scientists.

Because somewhere along the way, someone forgot that human nature and nature
are not always in sync. Somebody forgot what our collective father's told us: "It's all fun and games until someone gets an eye poked out."

By Scott Tinley
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