Adventure: Feel the Burn! Treasure the Earth! Be on TV!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1995

Adventure: Feel the Burn! Treasure the Earth! Be on TV!

Part music video, part human stampede, a controversial new sport invades America. Do you care?
By Martin Dugard

In October of last year, as people in the Bornean village of Ba Kelalan peeked from their huts before the start of the sixth annual Raid Gauloises adventure race, four helicopters hovered overhead, bristling with TV cameras and flattening rice paddies with prop wash. In the eye of the hubbub, a swarm of Westerners--40 five-person coed teams clad in spandex tights and long-sleeved T-shirts--anxiously stretched and chomped energy bars. Nervous? Yep. Before them yawned 250 miles of torment in which they would climb, rappel, raft, mountain-bike, and speed-hike through mountainous jungle, a $40,000 prize going to the first leech-covered squad to stagger across the finish line. Off to the side, a young American missionary was explaining the scene to a village elder. "These people," he said, "are part of a great race."

"What?" the old man asked in disbelief.

"Yes, all the way to Mulu, 250 miles."

This prompted an easy-to-translate response. "Baaa-haaaaa," the elder tribesman blurted, as other villagers who'd gathered nearby doubled over in laughter, too.

Since 1989, when a French journalist named Gerard Fusil minted the concept of adventure racing, belly laughs have been a common reaction to the event's adrenaline-pumped earnestness. But whether you consider these long, fervent medleys of locomotion the future of outdoor competition or a kind of American Gladiators on the Road, they can no longer be laughed off, and a full-force invasion of the American market is now in progress. Beyond the sport's granddaddy event--the Raid Gauloises, which begins on the fourth of this month in Patagonia--1996 will see four North American adventure-racing stops, including the Eco-Challenge, to be held in August near Vancouver, British Columbia, and a race at the next Extreme Games, tentatively slated for June somewhere in New England. Interest is healthy on the all-important tube as well, with NBC signed up to televise the Raid for the first time and ESPN re-upping its commitment to the Extreme Games. The sport's biggest splash in the United States, last April's eight-day, 370-mile Eco-Challenge, run in southern Utah, was televised by MTV and NBC and attracted lucrative sponsorship deals.

There's just one problem: So far in this country, adventure racing has generated as much anger as mirth, thanks mainly to controversies surrounding its chief stateside promoter, a British expatriate named Mark Burnett. Head of a Los Angeles-based outfit called Eco-Challenge Lifestyles Inc., the 35-year-old Burnett has risen from humble beginnings to pull off a difficult feat: creating a lucrative sports enterprise where none existed before. He has also ruffled quite a few feathers and lately has drawn charges of everything from environmental incorrectness to nonpayment of debts. Burnett, of course, has his own side of the story. For starters, he says his environmental detractors, who frown on dispatching racers and their jeep-driving camp followers into sensitive environments, "are not in touch with this generation's wilderness users." As for his creditors--various outfitters in Utah and elsewhere claim he owes them at least $100,000--he advises them to be patient.

"Everybody," he says, "is on the payment plan."

A three-time competitor in the Raid Gauloises who's been promoting the sport full-time since 1992, Burnett's rocky road in Utah began a year before the race, when he ran smack into the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a Salt Lake City-based conservation group that objected loudly to the proposed course, saying it might damage archaeological areas and wildlife habitat. SUWA's complaints prompted the Bureau of Land Management, on whose acreage the race was to be run, to take a closer look. Before the race, the BLM made Burnett pony up an $80,000 bond to ensure that he would play by the rules. One stipulation was that he would weave "ecologically sensitive" messages into the go-for-it coverage on MTV. Only a few minutes of such messages were included in the 90-minute production, and though the BLM has decided that the Eco-Challenge itself had minimal environmental impact, it is still considering whether to keep the bond.

It's not known precisely how such setbacks and other expenses balanced against Eco-Challenge Lifestyles Inc.'s ample TV and sponsorship gross, believed to top $1.5 million, but Burnett is unfazed. "The BLM is out of touch with the MTV generation," he says. In British Columbia, he adds, "there are fewer environmental concerns--people actually welcome this race."

In the end, adventure racing's fate in the United States will be determined more by TV ratings than by Burnett's deal-making. Still, his critics believe that stepping on toes could alienate competitors who have to fork over hefty entry fees--the Eco-Challenge cost $7,500 per team--to take part. Robin Horsfield, an Eco-Challenge competitor who nearly died after fording a water-filled canyon at night, says she was slapped with a $3,000 hospital bill despite having paid Burnett a fee for supplemental insurance before the race. She says she's contemplating whether or not to compete in more Burnett-sponsored races. Robert Finlay, another Eco-Challenge vet, says he definitely will, but with reservations. "It's too bad the guy has such questionable ethics," he says, "because it's such a great sport."

"I don't care what anyone says about me, because it all blows over in six weeks," responds Burnett. "The adventure-racing genie is out of the bottle, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it now."

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