Extreme sports a risky business for tourists

Monday, 11 September 2000

Increasing numbers of young Australians who are travelling the world to take part in "extreme" sports such as bungee jumping, canyoning and mountaineering are doing so under the misapprehension these sports are high-thrill but low-risk, according to an Adelaide University researcher.

Department of Anthropology lecturer Dr Catherine Palmer says these Australians - predominantly both males and females aged between 18 and 35 - are being sold the message of high thrills/low risk by commercial operators eager to cash in on the growing market.

"These sports are sold to people as being high-thrill, but at the same time being low risk - and that's obviously not the case," Dr Palmer says. "Things can and do go wrong, and when that happens, the nature of the activities mean lives are lost.

"The Interlaken disaster last year is a prime example of the tragic consequences which can occur when things go wrong."

Dr Palmer has researched why ordinary Australians are attracted to extreme sports as part of a paper title "Shit Happens": the selling of risk in extreme sports, which she will present at the Australian Anthropological Society Conference in Perth later this month.

"I'm interested in why people feel the need to risk their lives like this - why they want to put their lives in the hands of people they've never met - and how the commercial operators sell their services in such a way that makes them attractive to people," she says.

"Part of it stems from the fact that anyone can do these activities. You don't have to spend years training, or make a lot of sacrifices, like say an Olympic athlete does - basically all these people have to do is show up.

"Much of it is also purely about hedonism, in that people want to do these things for themselves - their motivation is one of self-gratification. A large part of that is because of the way these sports are marketed by operators."

Of greatest interest - and concern - for Dr Palmer is that when things do go wrong and tragedies occur, money can still be made through a burgeoning new literary and media genre: the adventure saga; an autobiographical account of the disaster as penned by a survivor.

"While the Interlaken tragedy is yet to make it to print or the big screen, we have seen in recent times films such as The Perfect Storm or books such as Into Thin Air, which details an ill-fated 1996 trip to Mount Everest," Dr Palmer says.

"I find this kind of 'selling a disaster' curious and questionable."


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Catherine Palmer
The University of Adelaide
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