What Does the Phrase "Extreme Sports" Mean to Professionals?

7 Extreme Sports Professionals Answer From the Heart

Joel Strickland BASE jumps in Norway
Athlete Joel Strickland makes a BASE jump from a cliff over a Norwegian fjord. Image © Joel Strickland (varialfreefly.com)

We all toss around the term "extreme sports." But what the heck is an "extreme sport," anyway?

How do we set about defining what's extreme and what's not? In a world where people are doing everything from cliff-nuzzling wingsuit jumps to extreme ironing, the parameters of extremity range hilariously widely. 

To try to pin down the definition, I reached out to some folks who should know: after all, they live on the pointy end, dedicating their lives to pursuits that qualify as extreme by any definition. Here's what they have to say on the subject.

Al MacCartney 

(World Champion Airsports Athlete, Inspirational Motivational Speaker, Human Flight Expert, Adventurer and founder of  Jump4Heroes, The Royal British Legion Extreme Human Flight Team):

“’Extreme sports’ are those that have a high level of perceived risk, not necessarily a high level of actual risk.

The term itself is a misnomer: they are not always ‘sports.’ Perceived-high-risk activities can fall under the definition, as well. The catchphrase is often used as a marketing term and, while not always conducted by a youth demographic, they are usually the primary target audience.
Extreme sports are normally non-traditional. They have been associated with an anti-establishment, unapologetic lifestyle branding that rejects authority; recently, however, the anti-establishment ethos is no longer a requirement. Compliance to cultural norms and respect for authority is completely acceptable.
High speed and adrenaline (or the production of other substances, such as endorphins and dopamine, that are often mistaken for adrenaline) are not a technical requirement for an activity to be an extreme sport, but are often associated with it.”

Jason Moledzki 

(Performance Designs Factory Team Pilot, Flight-1 Instructor, Professional Canopy Pilot, Professional BASE Jumper, Coach, Test Pilot, Aerial Photographer/Videographer):

“The word ‘extreme’ sure has been tossed around -- and greatly misused -- over the last 20 or so years. Virtually everything from dishwashing liquid to energy drinks has carried the moniker.

I think the title of ‘extreme sport’ comes from the idea that these sports involve rebelling against the status quo and attempting the impossible. Doing the very things that were previously thought of as things that simply could not be done -- the riskier, the better. I'm talking about endeavors like big wave surfing, free climbing, free skiing and BASE jumping. All of these are extremely dangerous and, until very recently, the idea of even attempting any of these meant a high likelihood of certain death. There's a second tier that also expresses the same type of ideal but doesn’t carry the same level of risk – injury, yes, but fatality, not so much – such as BMX, skateboarding, motoX, etc. These sports are much more accessible and have a much larger level of participation, largely because they don't require the same level of commitment (and simply aren't as dangerous).” 

Chris 'Douggs' McDougall 

(Professional, Multi-Disciplinary BASE Jumper, Skydiver, Wingsuit Pilot, Instructor, Videographer/Photographer, Safety Officer, Stuntperson, Rope Access Expert, Motivational Speaker, TV Presenter and Author):

“I really don't like the term 'extreme sports.' I prefer to use the term 'adventure sports,' because every time I do my sports I’m going on a cool adventure.

There are no white lines, no goal posts, no rules, just pure adventure. I don't feel that BASE jumping or surfing or any of my chosen sports are extreme in the normal sense of the word; instead, they allow me to travel to incredible places in all corners of the earth and fulfill my dreams.”


Marshall Miller 

(GoPro Bomb Squad, Professional Paragliding and Speed Pilot, Wingsuit Pilot, Skydiver, BASE Jumper, Ski-BASE Athlete and Snow/Waterkiting Expert):

“Ah -- cool stuff, yo. ‘Extreme sports.’ I define an ‘extreme’ sport as something that requires your attention and focus.

An ‘extreme’ sport can't be taken too off-hand, because of the consequences that typically exist. I hate saying the ‘d word’ (that rhymes with ‘breath’) but yeah, you're not too cool when you're out of breath.”

Hank Caylor

(American Rock Climbing and BASE Jumping Legend):

‘”Extreme Sports,’ to me, is an activity/sport in which the consequences of failure is a spectacular (and usually graphic) injury and/or death.”

Mike Steen 

(Professional Professional Paragliding and Speed Pilot, Wingsuit Proximity Pilot, Skydiver, BASE Jumper, Kiteboarder, Wing- and Tracking Suit Developer/Test Pilot and Entrepreneur):

“The term ‘extreme sports’ was coined in the 1990s, when ‘extreme skiing’ was popular and the X-Games (short, of course, for ‘extreme’ games) were created.

I personally don't like the term, because I feel that our sports are more calculated than extreme. Anything can be extreme. Just try running across a busy highway during rush hour traffic."

Dimitrios Kontizas 

(Professional Extreme Sports Photographer, World Adventurer, Red Bull Illume Finalist)

“Being an extreme sports photographer places me right in the middle of the game. I may not participate in such sports, but this should not fool you. I am totally in on it. Believe me when I say I have seen it all.

As to how the term was invented: I think it was created out of a necessity to put a term to a slew of new trends that could not otherwise be categorized. ‘Extreme sports,’ we shall call them, and everything too dangerous to be practiced by many will belong in this family.
The definition of extreme sports for me comes down to the rush: the fact that you find yourself with your eyes wide open, your heart pumping fast, your mind computing all variations of your jump and above all, the feeling of your body transforming to a different state. Maybe the cheating of death produces such a rush. It is like you have death next to you and you rely on your skills to evade him. That can be done by knowing your limits. The awful part is when athletes think that they are indestructible – then, people die.
From my years of experience as a BASE jumping photographer, BASE jumping is the king of extreme sports. One parachute and no reserve, plus tons of skills, plus low altitude, plus free fall equals adrenaline to the maximum. Mathematics do not lie. This is the ultimate rush factory!”

So...what's "extreme sports"?

It's any physical discipline that forces you to acknowledge your place on the risk continuum. An extreme sport isn't a casual pursuit. It requires its athletes to train -- to stay current, honing skills and learning obsessively -- in order to stay in one piece. It forces focus. It invites interdisciplinary cross-training. It encourages venturing out into the world in pursuit of new places to pollinate its practices. It fosters the development of new equipment; new methods; new modalities.

Most of all, though, an extreme sport cultivates the bonds between their practitioners. Its difficulties and dangers and soaring highs crystallize communities. It fertilizes adventure with love. Sounds like hippie nonsense, maybe -- but ask anybody up here in the sky. They'll tell you it's true.