Le Breton, D  (2000)  'Playing Symbolically with Death in Extreme Sports', in Body and Society, Vol 6, No. 1: 1--11.

[This is an interesting piece based on accounts given by extreme sportsmen themselves, with some theoretical commentary. From what I can see, the underlying framework appears to be based on Durkheim's notion of the sacred, and also the work on anomie and egoism: the latter suggests that people must find limits against which to define socially acceptable egos. Le Breton seems to be arguing that as social limits cease to be imperative, and, possibly, as notions of death become more privatized, so individuals need to define the limits of their egos by playing with death in extreme sports].

 There is an increasing interest in sports that require prolonged and intensive ordeals. In our society,  'reference points are both countless and contradictory and... values are in crisis' (1), hence the need to test character, courage and stamina in different ways in the forms of extreme endurance, where the only contest is against oneself.  'The physical limit has come to replace the moral limits at present day society no longer provides' (1). People find satisfaction in realising that they have coped with suffering. It strengthens their sense of themselves as subjects  'fated to say yes or no' (1). Endurance offers an intense relationship with the body, and success can bring jubilation, ecstasy and  'being in perfect harmony with the world' (2). However this is a private form of pleasure, more dignified and personal. The symbolism of the contest between self and nature lies in it being a kind of embodied 'truth of Western individualism', since nature is now 'the only party of any value, the only speaker worthy of respect' (2). The risk of death is actually rising, however.

Participating in dangerous ordeals provides a 'mixture of fear and intoxication, of emotion and sensation' (2). Participants themselves often refer to 'fun' to describe this mixture. Csikszentmihalyi has talked about experiencing  'flow', while Klausner (1986) refers to  'stress seeking'. Le Breton prefers a vocabulary referring to  'a personally generated spirituality achieved through the ordeal or activity' (2). The problem with flow is that it also describes activities that do not involve extreme risk. While flows states appear to be autonomous and autotelic, individuals can manage the balance between risk and competence fairly completely. Klausner suggests that seeking stress is based on a  'quest for strong emotions' (3), sometimes seen as a quest for adrenaline. This is not always subject to a careful balance. Instead, stress seekers seem to go through [a career], where panic can be associated with the first stage, followed by lowered anxiety, and then raised anxiety as the activity comes to an end, or with a final stage of enthusiasm and fulfilment (this is based on ethnographic work on parachutists by Lyng 1990) There is thus a  'dialectic of fear and pleasure' and a series of definite stages in the event (4).

Extreme sports involving risks from nature seem to involve challenging and uncontrolled episodes that engender fear and anxiety, and the pleasure lies in overcoming these unexpected stresses. [A number of statements by extreme sportsmen seem to confirm this, page 4f]. Pleasure in recovering and cheating death seems to be particularly intense, and this intensity of pleasure is unobtainable anywhere else. Choosing to seek out such stresses in the first place offers particularly pleasurable satisfactions on survival.

In situations of extreme challenge and intense commitment, the body also becomes an adversary, something to be struggled with. Enduring muscular pain becomes a test of sincerity and character  [more sportsmen's reflections support this view, pages 5 and 6]. Suffering is seen as offering positive values as well -- information, reminders of the risk. Extreme sports people make a symbolic deal with death, where death is  'metaphorically solicited rather than approached for real' (6).

 Spectacular extreme sports are merely the tip of the iceberg, though, and similar activity can be found in people running marathons, trekking, or enduring similar ordeals. It is common for such participants to emphasise the pain of the ordeal and the temptation to give up: recognising suffering is an important part of the  'paradoxical jubilation born of suffering overcome' (6)  [more sportsmen are quoted pages 6 and 7 -- incidentally, a female sports person finally appears on page 7]. There can be a sense of unity with the world and the body.  'Reconciling the limit and the excess provides a guarantee against madness, telescoping time and space while remaining someone who is in touch with today, who has to return home after a few hours or months to a diary, already full for days after the ordeal is over, living both internally and externally, playing with symbolic limits' (7). [Shades of escape and some kind of feeling of existential authenticity in this?]. People who have overcome ordeals feel they have been led  'to the heart of the world', and also to the  'pre-eminence of their own personal value' (7).

Extreme sports and ordeals offer possibilities for dramatic performance. Thus players tend to see themselves as masters of the activity overall, despite the risk and unpredictability. It is also a way of cheating death, albeit for a short moment: overcoming risk is 'the guarantee of a life lived fully' (7). This is a sacred experience for le Breton, although one devoid of specifically religious references. Such experience can make other routes to spirituality look banal, including commercial routes to ecstasy. Extreme sports are conducted with passion. They offer  'a new and eminently modern form of  "wild mysticism"' (8). [One climber cited here describes climbing as a form of meditation, while a bungee jumper describes the adrenalin rush and a moment of absorbing sensation in the jump. One recollection is worth quoting in detail -- a climber fell onto a narrow ledge but managed to overcome his fear to get himself off, despite extreme hazard]:

 What I'm doing, I said to myself, is absolutely impossible. I can't do it. But I was touched... the thing I became on the Neva was the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life  (le Breton page 9 quoting Schultheis)

 Skiers and climbers also refer to the ecstatic moment where a new kind of intense self emerges following great danger:

My personality left me, the links with the earth were severed: was no longer frightened or tired; I felt as though transported through the air, I was invisible, nothing could stop me, I'd reached that state of intoxication, of dematerialisation that skiers seek on the slopes, pilots and the sky and divers on the high board (le Breton, page 9 quoting Lachenal).

Participation offers an overwhelming rush of sensation and provides people with a feeling of inner strength, fullness of being, a  'culminating moment' which provides a justification. It is a  'moment of illumination, of trance' (10). It is related to the sacred, but at the same time a personal generation of meaning  [that is, not collectively generated?]. Once experienced, it validates much of the rest of life.  'It is not just a choice, a particular state of grace, but the decision simply to jump from a crane or a bridge held by an elastic or to run for hours or row for weeks' (10).

(lots more in the actual piece)

Klausner, S  (1986) Why Men take Chances. Studies in
Stress-Seeking, New York: Anchor Books.
Lyng, S  (1990)  'Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking', in American Journal of Sociology, 4 (95): 851-- 86.

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