The advent of “extreme sports” provides the latest form of hair-raising competition, but athletes pushing the envelope is nothing new. Roman chariot racing offered plenty of thrills and spills in front of frenzied fans at the Circus Maximus. Elsewhere, in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, a ball game resulted in players being sacrificed to the gods.
In that spirit, the perils of play are found in a wide variety of contests worldwide involving awe-inspiring courage and skill — and sometimes even death.
Surfing is awesome. Surfing is cool. And surfing is the only sport in which the participants can be eaten. Ever since bands like Dick Dale and the Del Tones, The Surfaris, and The Beach Boys (most of whom didn’t surf) helped popularize it in the 1960s, surfing has become a global phenomenon, featuring endless summers of tanned bods getting amped, stoked, and tubed. The flip side to this lifestyle sport, however, is the possibility of a vicious shark attack.
So far, in 2020, there have been six unprovoked fatalities by sharks, including three surfers. Most incidents involve Great White, Tiger, and Bull sharks. They occur in coastal waters such as California, Hawaii, and Australia — areas that also happen to be surfing hot spots revered for their ideal conditions and monster waves.
Great Whites are the largest predatory fish on Earth. They also possess an extraordinary array of senses, grow between 15 to 20 feet in length, and weigh up to 5,000 pounds. Experts believe that most incidents involving surfers result from a shark mistaking the surfer for a seal or sea lion.
In the majority of cases, once the shark gets a mouthful of fiberglass or a neoprene wet suit instead of fatty marine mammal flesh, it will usually leave the scene — but not always. That initial “sample bite” can also inflict severe and fatal wounds from a Great White‘s 300 teeth, causing the victims to bleed out before reaching shore.
9. Bull Riding
The rough and tumble arena of bull riding features eight seconds (or less) of heart-pounding, twisting and turning action at state fairs and rodeos across North America. While top cowboys can make a handsome living on the back of a testy, 2,000-pound bull, some riders might want to stick with the far less threatening mechanical version down at the local saloon.
Although many riders now wear heavily padded vests and helmets to mitigate serious injury, these denim-clad daredevils can still be gored, kicked, or crushed. A “flank strap” device is placed around the animal’s haunches to ensure it bucks during the ride — a practice that continues to rankle animal rights activists.
According to the Professional Bull Riders website, the organization is “fully committed to ensuring the health, safety, welfare, and respect of each bovine athlete that enters a PBR arena.” To date, however, there is no official statement from the bulls regarding their position on the matter.
8. Auto Racing
Auto racing emerged not long after the invention of the “horseless carriage” in the late 19th century. The fast-paced excitement would attract both thrill-seeking competitors and spectators alike with an adrenaline-injected need for speed. Unfortunately, the lethality of flammable fuel and high-velocity collisions can result in tragic consequences with the blink of an eye, ranging from go-karting kids to racing legends such as Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
The fabled 24 Hours of LeMans is one of the sport’s most celebrated events. It also holds the distinction of producing the worst disaster in motorsports history. On June 16, 1955, a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR driven by Frenchman Pierre Levegh slammed into the rear-end of a race car driven by Britain’s Lance Macklin at 150 miles-per-hour. This set off a chain reaction of mayhem and carnage in which Levegh’s car became airborne and launched into the packed grandstand.
By the time the smoke cleared, fire and metal debris had claimed 80 people’s lives, including Levegh, and injured more than 100 other spectators. A subsequent inquiry proved inconclusive regarding responsibility, but the proximity of the front stands to the track undoubtedly played a crucial role.
Additionally, race organizers would be heavily criticized for their decision to complete the race, eventually won by Jaguar drivers Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb.
7. American Football
The National Football League (NFL) easily ranks as the most popular professional sport in America. After all, watching incredibly fast and strong athletes run, catch, and throw while smashing into each other provides a wildly entertaining appeal like none other. But it comes at a steep price with far-reaching implications to the players on the field.
Over the years, the NFL has been rocked by a series of wide-ranging scandals that include drugs, sexual harassment, blatant cheating, and recent allegations of racism involving team owners. The league is also grappling with a deadly problem it can longer avoid: concussions.
Former All-Pro quarterback Jim McMahon is just one of many players suffering from violent hits to the head. Fortunately, increased awareness of conditions such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is finally being addressed. Additionally, the well-documented suicides of ex-players will ultimately help the sport move forward with improved safety measures and injury protocol.
The sport of rugby, unlike its flashier offspring (AKA American football), doesn’t use heavy padding or hard helmets. Furthermore, the non-compulsory headgear (“scrum caps”) are more akin to a soft bonnet and designed to protect ears instead of skulls. Nonetheless, “ruggers” features the same hard-hitting, bone-crushing action, resulting in brutal injuries that live up to its slogan: “Give Blood. Play Rugby.”
Featuring 15 players on a side and hugely popular in countries of the British Commonwealth, a rugby match can quickly turn into a war of attrition. The pitch even resembles a muddy battlefield replete with bloodied wounded warriors limping and fighting to the final whistle.
The intensity surrounding the sport is often a matter of national identity and well-deserved pride. In his book ‘This Rugby Spellbound People,” author Gwyn Prescott, describes this deeply woven passion in Cardiff, Wales, which “permanently embed rugby football into the popular culture and the very lifeblood of the town.” Just a game? Hardly.
5. Mountain Climbing
When asked why he was trying to climb Mount Everest, acclaimed British mountaineer George Mallory replied, “because it’s there.” The cheeky answer is as good as any to explain the motivation behind risking life and limb to conquer Mother Nature’s majestic peaks. Mallory would perish during a blizzard in 1924 while attempting the first ascent of the highest point on Earth. His body wouldn’t be recovered for another 75 years.
Modern climbers have benefited from technological improvements in equipment, mapping, and weather forecasting. These factors, combined with easier global access to climbing sites, have made mountaineering more popular than ever. Still, summiting Mt. Everest, the crown jewel of the sport, continues to claim lives at a record pace.
In 2019, 11 climbers were killed en route to what Nepalese sherpas call ‘Sagarmatha’ (‘Goddess of the Sky’). Fatalities can result from several factors, including hypothermia, high winds, avalanches, and altitude sickness.
Additionally, lack of experience from bucket list tenderfoots has led to a rise in both over-tourism and an increased number of deaths during the latest trend of commercialized expeditions.
(*Mount Everest is the highest mountain above sea level, but Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain base-to-peak: 10,210 meters (33,500 ft.), 4,205 meters (13,796 ft.) above sea level.)
The spectacular stunts in Mission: Impossible — Fallout are highlighted by Tom Cruise, spilling out of an airplane and nailing a HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jump. But the recent deaths of two skydivers in Georgia have shined an unfortunate spotlight on the dangers of skydiving.
The victims, a seasoned instructor and an 18-year-old woman on her first jump, were killed when their chutes failed to open during a tandem jump just south of Atlanta. Jeanna Triplicata and Nick Esposito died at the scene after the primary parachute failed to open properly, and an emergency parachute had only partially deployed because of the low altitude.
According to the United States Parachute Association, 15 fatal skydiving accidents occurred in the United States in 2019 out of about 3.3 million jumps. Despite the rare accident involving Triplica, tandem skydiving is statistically much safer, with one student death per 500,000 tandem jumps in the past decade.
3. Jai Alai
Dubbed “the fastest sport on the planet,” jai alai (pronounced, “Hi-Lie”) is that odd-looking competition found primarily in regions of Hispanic influence. It’s also extremely dangerous, resulting in horrific injuries and deaths from head injuries.
The game is played similarly to racquetball on a three-story, three-sided court in which eight teams of two or four players battle round-robin style. But what makes jai alai unique is a hard rubber ball called a poleta that travels up to 200 miles-per-hour. The speed is accomplished using a long basket worn like a glove called a cesta that puts a tremendous spin on the ball.
Scoring involves hurling and catching the poleta, and the first team to 7 or 9 points wins (depending on the tourney format). The whirling action is sometimes faster than the human eye can follow, but the fervid betting taking place in the stands is equally intense. This deep-rooted element helped elevate jai alai’s popularity, but the corrupt nature of gambling would ultimately lead to its downfall as a professional sport.
Famed New Yorker columnist and sportswriter A.J. Liebling called it “the sweet science of bruising” to vividly describe boxing’s heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, scientific research paints a far more grim picture of the sport involving repeated blows to the head.
The brain consists of a gelatinous material floating in cerebrospinal fluid inside your skull. This protective cushioning helps guard against every day knocks to our noggins, but a powerful strike to the head can cause the brain to slide back and forth, resulting in a person becoming briefly unconscious — better known as a knockout.
Comprehensive data now indicates that even mild concussions suffered during a fighter’s career can lead to severe cumulative damage. Over time, these injuries typically worsen as the brain rapidly deteriorates with symptoms that include confusion, dizziness, and headaches. The abuse can also lead to the development of Parkinson’s disease — such as the case of legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali.
Few athletes in history have ever achieved the level of universal fame and adoration as “The Greatest.” Ali’s dominance inside the ring was equally matched outside of it as an inspirational leader in the fight against racial injustice. His three epic fights with Joe Frazier alone illustrate the relentless punishment he absorbed that would later have major consequences.
In 1996, Ali’s physician, Dr. Dennis Cope, spoke about the champ’s condition in a 60 Minutes interview: “[Ali] has had a development of what’s called Parkinson’s syndrome. And from our testing on him, our conclusion has been that that has been due to pugilistic brain syndrome resulting from boxing,” Cope said.
Archaeological evidence attributed to the Minoan Civilization suggests the bullfighting dates back over 3,000 years. Flash forward to modern-day, and the spectacle remains wildly popular throughout Spain and in several other regions of the Spanish-speaking world.
A word of warning: bullfighting is a blood sport. Not to be confused with the chop-socky movie trilogy, the fighting of bulls is a bloody affair, involving three separate, crimson-flowing segments. The rituals are performed to weaken the bull with puncture wounds delivered by “picadors” on horseback, and “banderilleros” on foot. This prelude is considered necessary; otherwise, the mighty beast would easily triumph every time.
Once the bull has been prepped for the final act, the matador (Spanish for “killer”) enters the ring armed only with a thick, red cape called a muleta and a long, curved sword. This portion of the fight is where the matador must prove his courage and artistry with a series of flamboyant passes. Following his ‘dance with death’, he then goes in for the kill.
Ideally, a swift thrust of the blade will strike the bull between the shoulders and sever the aorta for a swift execution. A slight displacement, however, can turn the tables. Quickly. Again, you’ve been warned.