All great inventions have a rich history, and extreme sports are no exception. It’s easy to focus solely on recent X Games spectacles and viral YouTube videos because these are hallmarks of visibility and success in the here and now. Incredible tricks and innovations within sports sometimes cause us to forget about the path forged by the creation and popularization of the pastimes themselves. Read on as we pay homage to the people and events who’ve paved the way for our infatuation with the extreme and allowed us to be mesmerized and awed by modern-day Adrenalists. Whether or not you’re a history buff, reflection is an integral element of creation. To see where we’re going, we need to understand where we’ve been.
Snowboarding first gained traction in the 60s, when surfers and skateboarders took to mountain slopes with crudely fashioned wooden surfboards, called “Snurf” (a likely mash-up between snow and surf) boards. Snurf boards were long, hard to maneuver, and devoid of any bindings. In the early 70s, as “Snurfing” began to gain traction in Vermont, now legendary snowboard manufacturer Jake Burton Carpenter started producing shorter boards with foot straps and selling them out of his Manchester garage. With more mechanically viable boards available, snowboarding’s popularity skyrocketed. Throughout the 70s and 80s, more traditional Vermont ski destinations began opening up their facilities to boarders. By 1988, the US Amateur Snowboarder Association was formed. Two years later, that organization had gone international, becoming the International Snowboarding Federation. In 1998, snowboarding became an Olympic sport.
Much like snowboarding, skateboarding was born out of surfers’ desire to do what they loved even when water wasn’t readily accessible. In a 1950s attempt to achieve this, they began strapping roller skate wheels to the bottoms of wooden boxes or planks as a means of simulating a board with which they could cruise the asphalt. Soon, companies began producing decks composed of pressed wood (as is common today), but the wheels were still made of clay and hard to control. It wasn’t until 1972, when Frank Nasworthy invented and marketed more maneuverable urethane wheels that boarding really took off. In 1978, Alan Gelfand, nicknamed “Ollie,” invented the stalwart ollie trick. Skateparks became more prevalent. Though the sport experienced a dip in popularity during the 80s, the advent of the VCR enabled troops of boarders to make tapes documenting their skills and gain notoriety among young viewers who began to idolize skateboarding as a symbol of the counter-culture. In 1995, the first X Games came to Rhode Island and brought skateboarding into the mainstream. Nothing’s been the same ever since.
Though the term “BASE jump” is only 30-years-old, the act of jumping from high stationary objects and using a parachute to break the fall has been going on for hundreds of years. In 1783, Louis-Sebastian Lenormand climbed to the top of an observatory tower in Montpellier, France and jumped off to test his chute, a new innovation at the time. Likewise, on Feb. 2, 1912, daredevil, Frederick Law, sailed down from the Statue of Liberty’s observation platform. The list goes on, all the way up to the legendary Jeb Corliss. So, you see, our modern society isn’t the only one that’s addicted to thrills. In fact, we’re likely a little more sane than those that came before us, due to our parachute technology being a lot more advanced than it ever was.
Now we know when people started jumping off buildings, but when did they start jumping out of planes? Sometime during the 18th century, as reported by Skydiving.com. They weren’t jumping out of planes then (there were no planes), though. They were jumping out of hot air balloons with very makeshift parachutes (these bad boys were already inflated; that meant no ripcords, folks). Joseph Montgolfier of France was the pioneer in the air balloon arena. In 1911, Grant Morton became the first person to skydive from a plane when he propelled out of a Wright Model B over Venice Beach, California using a folded silk parachute. Amazingly, he landed safely. As time ticked closer to WWII, parachutes became more automated. Good thing, too, because the planes from which jumpers were deploying became more advanced and flew much much higher than before. How high exactly? Certainly too high for a folded silk chute to have any meaningful effect on a jumper’s survival.
Though anthropologists are still uncertain of the exact date at which Polynesians began surfing, historical accounts from British explorer Captain James Cook, seen on HistoryofSurfing.net, tell us that the people who inhabited the region that is now Hawaii were exhibiting a belly-riding iteration of the sport as early as the 1770s. Surfing was reportedly practiced by members of all Polynesian social strata as a means of demonstrating skill and importance. In time, Polynesians became more adept at standing on the long wooden boards, eventually mastering the sport we know and love today. When Cook’s journals were published, people all over the world read of his accounts and were fascinated by surfing. Many readers began traveling to Polynesia to explore the foreign sport for themselves. And the rest, as they say, is history.