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What are these extreme sports?

They burst on the scene in the 1990s — brash, risky new sports and older activities done with a high-octane twist. Snowboarding, skateboarding, BMX riding, wakeboarding and similar pursuits became infused with a counterculture credo of making up rules and pushing the limits. But soon big business came courting the outlaw athletes. CBC Archives looks back at the recreation revolution and how savvy marketers helped push the extreme into the mainstream.

The sports world was rocked by a brash band of upstart activities that promised rowdy fun, nail-biting risk and counterculture cool. Suddenly, thrill-seekers charged to the slopes, the skies, the mountains and even city streets. Chasing behind them are corporations fighting for the attention of young, free-spending fun seekers. But some athletes say they feel exploited.

Canadian skateboard pro Max Dufour calls the "extreme" label a marketing cliché. "It sucks. It doesn't mean anything to me." Others say corporations, such as American sports network ESPN and its hugely popular X Games, are exploiting the "extreme" cachet -- and keeping most of the cash. 
• The term "extreme sport" first made it into the Oxford dictionary in 1998. Oxford defines the phrase as "Designating or relating to (a version of) a sport or pastime performed in a hazardous environment or involving great physical risk; esp. in extreme sport. Also: participating in such a sport or pastime."

• Oxford traces the phrase to a 1974 mountaineering article about "extreme climbers" and a 1989 article in Skiing Trade News that talks of "'Extreme' sports like snowboarding, windsurfing and heliskiing." The phrase is usually applied to individual, as opposed to team, sports.

• Theories abound about the roots of the extreme sports movement. Many people trace it back to the surfers of 1950s California. That sporty, carefree culture spawned skateboarding and, much later, snowboarding. A 1998 New York Times article argued the movement stemmed from early 1980s California skate-punk culture "which proved that you could still be a gnarly athlete even if you had green hair and a spiky dog-collar-style bracelet."

• PepsiCo, maker of the soft drink Mountain Dew, was among the first corporations to associate a product with extreme sports in a bid to grab the attention of young consumers.
• The company's "Do the Dew" campaign that started in 1992 featured cool-looking athletes enjoying Mountain Dew and a variety of extreme sports. PepsiCo credited the ads with boosting annual sales by 40 million cases. Ads for the drink had previously featured hillbillies.

• ESPN's Extreme Games debuted in 1995. A huge hit with young viewers, the competition (renamed the X Games in 1996) is credited with catapulting extreme sports into mainstream culture and dramatically increasing corporate involvement in the sports.

• Many athletes have complained that prize money at the X Games is unfairly low. Prizes for winning top events were less than $16,000 US in 2004. But the prestige can translate into huge profits from advertising, corporate sponsorships and even namesake video games. The X Games helped make skateboard champ Tony Hawk a superstar. He earned about $10 million US in 2004 - five years after he retired from competition.

• Max Dufour, who appears in this clip, is one of Canada's best-known skateboarders. He debuted in the X Games in 1996 and won a bronze medal in 1997 and a silver in 2000. In 1996 Dufour founded Woodchuck Inc., a Longueuil, Que., company that manufactures skateboard decks.

• In 2003, Disney's California Adventure park teamed up with the X Games to present a daily X Games Xperience live show featuring in-line skating, skateboarding, BMX and Moto-cross demonstrations.

• Kevin Thatcher of Thrasher, a San Francisco skateboard magazine, has criticized the commercialization of extreme sports. He turned down an invitation to oversee competitions at the first X Games. Thatcher told the New York Times in 1998: "TV flattens skateboarding into one big ad. You can't truly capture it unless you take the cameras away, close off a street and just let the kids go at it."
Medium: Television
Program: Sports Journal
Broadcast Date: Feb. 18, 2001
Guests: Stin Anderson, Max Dufour, Steve Jarrett, Jay Miron, Dave Osato
Reporter: Brenda Irving
Duration: 2:56
Footage: ESPN X Games; NBC Gravity Games

Last updated: March 7, 2014

Page consulted on March 7, 2014

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