The inaugural Extreme Games, a k a the "Look Ma, No Hands Olympics," splatters onto the sporting landscape June 24 to July 1. Why? Because America begot Madison Avenue, and Madison Avenue begot television, and television begot cable, and cable begot ESPN, and ESPN begot ESPN2, and, heck, if you've got two 24-hour sports networks to fill and a lot of Miller Lite Ice to sell, you sometimes must turn your cameras to odd feats of human athleticism such as "skysurfing."
At last glance, the two fastest growing industries in America today are extreme sports and mocha frappucinos.
(Well, at least these phenomena go hand in hand -- because, frankly, when jumping repeatedly from an airplane at 14,000 feet and spinning on a snowboard during a 120 mph free fall, a lot of caffeine can help.)
Extreme sports generally fall into one of two categories:
1) Slightly insane, somewhat shocking athletic activities at high speeds or high levels of danger.
2) Something Mickey Rourke would do on a dare.
For your more sedentary types, this extreme business might seem, well, a bit extreme. (I don't know about you, but "extreme" for me is walking briskly to my car if it looks like rain.) Man, that's a funky, risk-taking crowd out there. What do extreme athletes do after they retire? Put out oil-well fires? Work as greeters at Hell's Angels benefits?
These aren't so much trash sports as crash sports.
Bungy jumping? Heck, the jungle gym used to scare me.
Here is an actual list of some of the alleged sports in which 350 "world-class athletes" will compete in and around Newport and Providence, R.I.: mountain biking, in-line skating, bungy jumping*, skateboarding, sport climbing, skysurfing**, street luge racing, windsurfing, kiteskiing, and, of course, the Eco-Challenge.***
(* This is the world's first formal bungy jumping competition. You jump from a tower 160 feet high attached to an elastic cord. You start to plummet toward pavement, but halfway down, you're yanked back up, which, for me, bitterly recalls the second night of my honeymoon.)
(** This is the first made-for-TV interactive sport. Two-person teams consist of one sky diver performing choreographed dances and another sky diver filming the maneuvers with a helmet-mounted camcorder; judges rate both the quality of the routine and the quality of the video. As of press time, Quentin Tarantino, inexplicably, was not entered.)
(*** This is an endurance race in the wilderness in which five-person teams cover 250 miles of extreme terrain by mountain biking, sailing, whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, kayaking and power hiking. This ain't no stroll down the Champs d'Elysee. Frankly, the Eco-Challenge makes the Ironman Triathlon look like "The 20-Minute Workout.")
Somebody, by the way, needs to explain to me how Extreme Games organizers passed on the "American Gladiators."
Apparently -- and it's possible I'm misinterpreting a cultural trend here -- if you strap your best friend to the hood of a '72 Ford Falcon, drive it over a cliff, juggle three babies and a chain saw on the way down and land safely while performing a handstand, they'll tape it, show it and call it a new sport.
At this very moment, there is an individual who is "the No. 7 ramp rider in the country."
The Extreme Games will air on ESPN for 25 hours and on ESPN2 for 20 1/2 hours, plus an additional 32 hours of repeat coverage on ESPN2. That's 77 1/2 hours total; by comparison, the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal aired on ABC for 76 1/2 hours. Put another way, that's 76 1/2 hours of the incomparable Jim McKay then, and 77 1/2 hours of the insufferable Suzy Kolber now.
I prepared myself for the Extreme Games by watching ESPN's "Extreme Games 101," which is sort of like preparing yourself for a sauna by sticking your hand in a pot of boiling water. Anyway, it looks like we're all going to hell in a handbasket, and, from what I can tell, it looks like the wheels have come off that handbasket.
I saw bad postmodernist punk announcers, purposely out-of-focus video, a lot of George Hamilton suntans and a freestyle mountain biker by the name of Ice Money.
I listened as sports climber Hans Florine talked about "the politics of sports climbing." It's who knows who, he said, just like Hollywood. So he decided to start his own national rating system and, as he pointed out, "we now know, in theory, who the 200th best climber is in the U.S."
I watched "up close and personal" features on these nascent sports stars. (The Extreme Games is creating a new crateful of 15-second celebs. Thus, people who normally get excited when they see themselves on the security camera at convenience stores are now getting interviewed on national TV about their lives and their opinions -- and, hey, when you're 22 and you've been skateboarding professionally since you were 21, you've got a heck of a life and a lot to say, believe you me.) There's a new America out there: You don't have to work, you just have to learn to Rollerblade with a grand piano on your back and YOU CAN EARN A HIGH WORLD RANKING AND CASH PRIZES!
Of course, I'm hopeful that croquet -- in which I'm ranked fourth in my own family -- is added as a demonstration sport at the next Extreme Games.