Cheap Tricks

To air is human. To go big is divine. To huck for dollars at the hard rock cafe... a cry for help. Why are action-sports athletes suddenly channeling Evel Knievel?

A SPRING AFTERNOON at the Grand Canyon. The smell of juniper mingles with the acrid scent of fresh press releases. Bob Burnquist, a 29-year-old, Brazilian-born noodle of a man who's one of the world's best skateboarders, is poised to make mutant-sport history. Burnquist will launch from a 40-foot-tall plywood mega-ramp, hop sideways and grind to the end of a 40-foot steel rail, and then BASE-jump—BASE-jump!—1,600 feet to the canyon floor. Cameras from Stunt Junkies start to roll... Burnquist drops in, whirling from ramp to rail to chute. Amazing!

"This definitely ranks among the coolest things I've ever done," Burnquist crows later as an interviewer proclaims him the first to complete the stunt. To which the stunned observer remarks: Well, of course he's the first. Grand Canyon plus ramp plus slide plus parachute. As long as you're making like Rube Goldberg, why not throw in a unicycle and a burro ride?

With Burnquist and other high-flying athletes headlining numerous episodes of Stunt Junkies—the Discovery Channel's popular new celebration of all things gnarly and stupid—and with ESPN's annual Summer X Games gearing up for its 12th installment (August 3–6), now is a good time to ask: What the heck is going on with action sports?

The question can't be ignored, because recent months have seen the onset of a new baroque period, in which skaters and their big-air brethren have defiantly jumped the shark—the term for that ineffable moment when a TV show or entertainer shifts from being over the top to beyond the pale. In that spirit, action-sports stunts are now built around flashy backdrops (landmarks! Vegas!) and props (helicopters! motorcycles!), with desperate spectacle trumping serious athleticism every time.

Consider: On April 6, two weeks after Burnquist's Grand Canyon leap, skater Danny Way stuck a record-setting "bomb drop"—a free fall onto an angled ramp—off the 82-foot guitar fronting the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas. Garish, sure, but only slightly more so than Way's 2005 jump over the Great Wall of China. That trick cost $800,000 and earned Way a half-page photo in The New York Times, despite the fact that the distance, 61 feet, was short of his own world record of 79 feet.

Next up, on April 27, Stunt Junkies host Jeb Corliss headed to the observation deck of the Empire State Building wearing a disguise—and a fat suit to hide his BASE-jumping rig. Sans suit, and with helmet cam rolling, he climbed over the rails before guards wrestled him into custody. (Discovery Channel, which claimed ignorance of all this, fired Corliss the next day.) Then, on May 4, live on ESPN, motocross luminary Mike Metzger backflipped his bike over the Caesars Palace fountains in Las Vegas, in what amounted to a very loud commercial for Mission: Impossible III. Amid the glow of the Strip and the ka-ching of the announcers ("Mission accomplished!"), Metzger throttled his already over-revved vocation into a realm where there is no shame.

Downhill mountain bikers and whitewater kayakers have also caught the bug. In February, freerider Jason Rennie took a tow from a motorcycle in Wales, blazing along at 83 miles per hour so he could huck 133 feet over a semi and two vans. In April, paddler Tao Berman launched out of a helicopter into a section of Wisconsin's Montreal River that was reachable on foot. Why? Because it was there, and because Stunt Junkies' cameras were, too.

To be fair, action sports have always aimed to dazzle, to make scores of disaffected youth temporarily affected—and more susceptible to brand messages. This was once accomplished at the X Games and its imitators. But as Madison Avenue began co-opting the amplitude—injecting McTwists into shampoo and frozen-pizza ads—the stakes got higher. In response, athletes have ditched technique in favor of tricks that are more David Blaine than Dave Mirra.

"The bigger the stunt, the happier the sponsors are, since that translates into the mainstream media coverage these athletes don't often get," says David Browne, author of 2004's Amped, a history of action sports. "The sponsors want athletes with credibility, but they want their banners on TV a lot more."

There were early warnings that the drive to go biggest would end with a crash landing in the cheese pit. The first X Games included a bungee jumper in an Elvis outfit. In 1997, BMX vert rider Mat Hoffman worked a BASE jump into his act. Even sainted skater Tony Hawk played along: In 1998, for MTV, he jumped 18 feet between two seven-story buildings in L.A. Hawk, now 38, admits he's not sure if the more flamboyant stunts bring new people to the sport or just seem silly. "Do kids think that, to be noticed as a skateboarder, they have to jump over some monument?" he says.

Despite his evolution into a video-game overlord, Hawk is a solid touchstone for what's been lost. His greatest moment occurred on the halfpipe at the 1999 X Games, where, on the 13th try, he executed the world's first "900"—two and a half midair rotations. What you remember from that trick is Hawk's unbelievable hand-eye-board coordination. And his feat gives us a fair place to draw the line. What lingers after the adrenaline fades? An authentic accomplishment? Or shrieking announcers and a stage that has to be disassembled by roadies?

It's hard to begrudge these athletes the exposure they need. But the real problem is that much of the country still doesn't believe that action sports are, well, sports, and if you're going to convince them, you have to show a little more class. When you follow Evel Knievel over the fountains, you're sacrificing not only athletic credibility but decades' worth of accumulated cool. After his stunt, Mike Metzger was asked by an orgasmic ESPN announcer, "What does this mean for freestyle motocross?!" For the next few seconds, Metzger desperately sought to avoid the question. The answer he should have given? "Nothing."

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