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Extreme sports or extreme craze?

Remember when bungee jumping was the most daring extreme sport? 'X-games' have come a long way since then. Tobias Jones reports on the peculiar new world of the mad-for-it free-divers, BASE jumpers and sky-surfers.

At this year's X-Games, the Olympics of dangerous and daring 'sport', the sky-surfer Mike Frost will jump out of a plane above Mariner's Point, San Diego with a surf-board attached to his feet. At first he will start 'free-flying', a head-first dive through the sky, watching the Pacific Ocean below him as he reaches a speed of 288 kph. Then he will begin to spin at an amazing five revolutions per second, travelling sideways at a speed of 80 to 96 kph.

Nearer sea level, or rather a long way below it, Mehgan Heaney-Grier goes 'free-diving' with no oxygen tanks. A 19-year-old, part-time model, Mehgan can hold her breath for up to two minutes and swim to depths of 50 metres. 'It's a very relaxing thing to do,' she says. 'When you're that deep underwater, you feel compressed all over. But it's absolutely beautiful and very peaceful.' Mehgan and Mike are just two of the many people who choose to spend their free time risking their lives.

The extreme sports craze started ten years ago. Since then most risk addicts have completed either a bungee jump or a parachute jump, and are now turning to new, more dangerous and at times truly silly sports. The list of life-endangering activities gets longer every week. Nowadays you can take up 'BASE jumping' (a jump from the top of a building), 'free-climbing' (climbing up a rock face without the ropes) or go 'off-piste in-lining' (rollerblading down a mountain). And everybody is doing it, or at least everybody is watching it. Millions of people around the world spectate as alternative sportspeople perform. For every brave participant, there are tens of thousands of viewers, oohing and aahing in their living rooms.

But just how extreme is extreme? According to Mike Frost, sky-surfing isn't as alarming as it seems. 'It's nice to have people think it's dangerous,' he admits, 'but really it's a very safe sport.' So what does 'extreme' mean? 'There's a lot of misuse of the word.' says Steve Edmonds, director of the extreme sports series High Five. 'People use it to describe something which looks risky but is often fairly safe. Snowboarding isn't extreme and neither is bungee jumping, but I've seen someone jump off buildings in San Diego and had to pray he was going to survive. Now that's extreme.'

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