The typical action athlete is young, white and male, and most tend to have gregarious, sensation-hungry personalities. Indeed, young men in their late teens and early 20s are “a dominant force” in most extreme sports, with the average age of male skateboarders, snowboarders, artificial-wall climbers and in-line skaters being 14, 19, 20 and 20.5 years, respectively.
A full 89 percent of snowboarders are white, and many are upper-middle-class. Indeed, some minority athletes say that money is a serious bar to participating, said Holly Thorpe, a snowboarder and lecturer in sport and leisure studies at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.
Marc Frank Montoya is the first and only Mexican-American pro snowboarder. (Courtesy www.nzsnowboard.com)
Marc Frank Montoya, the first and only Mexican-American professional snowboarder, says that expensive ski-lift tickets are the upper class' way to keep poor people out of the sport, according to Thorpe. “They charge like 50 or 60 bucks” for a ticket, said Montoya. “That's how they keep city kids from going up and snowboarding,” he said.
The rise of the action sports culture and its commercialization on TV sports networks and in advertising, may reflect young, white men's search for an identity separate from the “establishment” image attached to older, white men, says Kyle W. Kusz, associate professor of cultural studies of sport and physical culture at the University of Rhode Island.
In the mid-1990s, when action sports exploded on the national scene, “we were having many conversations about multiculturalism and diversity,” and most top traditional sports like basketball and football were dominated by black athletes, says Kusz. In response, many snowboarders, for example, adopted a “hip-hop aesthetic” and began “tagging” — painting graffiti — he says. The sports were “a way of making white guys seems authentic and edgy.”
To a much greater degree than for traditional sports, women were involved in today's action sports from the earliest days, in the 1960s and '70s, Thorpe said. Nevertheless, action sports were and to some extent remain “a social institution created by men for men,” she said.
Some women found their action-sports accomplishments met with hostility, Thorpe said. For example, in 1995, Alison Hargreaves of the United Kingdom became only the second person ever to climb Mt. Everest solo and without using oxygen, a feat that would likely would have enshrined her permanently among sports' great achievers, had she been male. But in 1998, when she died descending after her second successful Everest climb, media accounts instead blasted Hargreaves as an “errant, unthinking mother” who had “effectively abandoned her children,” Thorpe said.
Of all action sports, skateboarding has been the most open to lower-income and non-white athletes.
In the 1980s, “we lower-middle-class suburbanites began busing long hours into urban centers, where we would skateboard the sculptural wastelands of old redevelopment projects with the inner-city kids,” said former professional skateboarder Ocean Howell of his teenage skateboarding years.
Compared to the gear required by other extreme sports — perhaps $2,000 to outfit a kayaker, for example, — skateboards can be had for $70 or $80, Howell notes.
In recent years, ethnic-minority neighborhoods have added skateboarding to the traditional roster of sidewalk games. “You had basketball, you had strikeouts, you had street football, which you played manhole-to-manhole,” said Bahr Brown, owner of Harlem's first skate shop, opened in 2006. Now a kid comes in my shop and he's like, 'Yo, Mom, can I get a skateboard?' ”
But some key personality traits bind extreme athletes together, class, race and gender aside, many athletes say.
“Sensation seekers tend to be extroverts,” and extreme-sports enthusiasts tend to form “very close communities” both in person and online, says Alisha Blakeney, a kayaker and graduate student at Auburn University, in Montgomery, Ala. Action athletes tend to be consumed with their sports. “It's just ridiculous how much of my life revolves around kayaking,” says Blakeney, who's held kayaking-related jobs and also researches her sport as a graduate student.