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Extreme sports in Germany: A lust for risk-taking

More and more Germans are defining themselves by their leisure activities. They are looking for a particular “kick” – climbing unsecured or throwing themselves off cliffs. Extreme sports have become mainstream.

When extreme sports enthusiasts plunge down steep slopes in deep snow or jump off high rocky cliffs, many people just shake their heads and wonder why on earth they do it. They video their experiences and post the films on YouTube, allowing others to share in the thrill of extreme risk-taking. Those watching the videos often find it impossible to understand why some people are willing to risk their health – and even their lives – for their sport. Is it daring, a lust for risk-taking, or the desire to be a hero? What are these people looking for when they push themselves to their limits?

One answer is that it is all about the “flow” for extreme athletes. A term in sports psychology, this refers to a state in which a person feels entirely at one with themselves – they are as it were totally absorbed in what they are doing. In studies, athletes say that everything feels completely effortless and happens of its own accord when they are in the “flow”. Anyone who has ever achieved this state will want to experience it over and over again – exploring their limits to an extreme level. They want to get right out of their comfort zone, a state that differs from one person to the next. Scientists distinguish between low and high sensation seekers. For the former, a new job or moving house might well be enough to break up their safe but somewhat boring everyday routine. Being high sensation seekers, extreme athletes always need new and complex impressions in their chosen sport, and want to achieve the best performance they possibly can. And in their eyes, this also merits taking physical or social risks.

It is difficult to define exactly what constitutes an extreme sport, as each person may have a different interpretation of extreme. For some people, even a marathon is a mammoth and crazy undertaking, whereas others train for ultra-running races or embark on deep-sea dives without breathing apparatus. The most widespread extreme sports in Germany at present are extreme endurance running or biking events, BASE jumping, freeriding and unsecured climbing. This sensation-seeking can put its stamp on entire regions: many German BASE jumpers for instance like to travel to Austria or Switzerland for their cliff jumps. Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland’s Bernese Highlands has even been described by one magazine as “the valley in which people fall from the sky”. And which sees the most fatal BASE jumping accidents.

They know what they are doing

It may sound absurd, but those extreme athletes who do their sport professionally actually know what they are doing. Rather than spontaneously abandoning themselves to their lust for risk-taking, they prepare themselves painstakingly and have an exact knowledge of their own abilities and limits. Besides physical fitness, it is not only willpower that counts, but also the external conditions. Like the weather: wind for example can be a matter of life or death for BASE jumpers if they are blown too close to a rock. But successfully judging these conditions and achieving the “flow” is precisely what makes the sport so exciting. None of the meticulous preparations or extensive training feature at all in the YouTube films, however. All that matters there is the moment – and that is all that is shown. Extreme sports are thriving thanks in part to this seemingly unbelievable footage that athletes record so that others can share in their extreme achievements. “What we record in images is that which will outlast us”, explains the Austrian philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann. He says that extreme sports enthusiasts want “to banish the fleeting nature of the moment, ideally for all eternity.” But it is precisely this media marketing that inspires increasing numbers of amateurs to try to do the same.

Deutsche Welle: The truly extreme athletes RadCow

2,591 hours of leisure time per year

So it is that some people use their leisure time to engage in challenging sports activities: some cross the Alps on foot, while others give paragliding a go or set off on an Arctic expedition. Running a marathon seems almost boring by comparison. Is our society becoming increasingly extreme? According to the Freizeit-Monitor 2016, a study of free time, Germans have 2,591 hours of leisure time per year. That is roughly 30 percent of all the hours available in one year. More and more Germans are defining themselves by their leisure time activities. Extreme sports have become trendy, and therefore mainstream.

One problem faced by many amateur sports enthusiasts is that they are unable to accurately assess their own abilities. And because of this, the adrenalin-charged “flow” state actually poses a danger for them: “There may be a tendency to ignore risks in this unreflective state”, says Marie Ottilie Frenkel, a sports psychologist at Heidelberg University. In one study, she noted that high sensation seekers are better able to handle extreme situations than other people. They release less of the stress hormone cortisol, do not have such a high heart rate and feel comfortable at a certain level of risk. However, it is only through extensive training that professional extreme athletes learn to judge their abilities and evaluate the extreme situations. What scares them are quite different things – like a well-ordered everyday life for instance, with three children and a dog. When they think about these kind of “limits”, all they can do is shake their heads.

The article was originally published here and was republished with permission from Goethe-Institut.

Author: Carolin Gasteiger works as a journalist at Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Carolin Gasteiger.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Germany Attribution – NoDerivs 3.0 Germany license.

September 2017

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