February 24, 2001

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Living on the edge

Rohit Brijnath

Last week a a legendary American racing car driver named Dale Earnhardt went into a stone wall. At 185mph. And a woman got a call telling her she’d become a widow.

People cried, mourned, wrote glittering epitaphs. People also said, in a gentler way ..shit happens. Race fast cars, people die, that‘s life.

It's a sentiment easy to be appalled by, hard to appreciate.

Risk stalks all sport, some clearly more than others. Men and women understand those risks, calculate them, and then knowingly walk the high wire with no net beneath. I'm told it's called challenging the limits or as Tom Wolfe so eloquently wrote in 'The Right Stuff', about "pushing the envelope".

I snap at my wife when her foot eases the speedometer past 100kmph on an open highway; these men, could do a crossword puzzle, at 150mph, hedged in between opponents giving them a metallic kiss. Go figure.

Some of it's always been there, like racing drivers, or mountaineers or sailors, who know once they start, sometimes there's no coming back, a one way journey into the Grim Reaper‘s embrace. Human error defeats skill, an oil slick conquers gripping tyres, a sudden snowstorm at 27,000ft defies every courage.

There is a lunacy to hurtling around tracks (what happened to reading Norman Mailer to pass time, or is it because he hasn‘t written something literate recently); there is also genius, both human (a test of nerve, patience, reflex, judgement, tactics) and mechanical (how do they build such cars, I wonder?). It is that fine mesh of the fascinating and the repelling.

It is much the same with boxing. I love boxing, and I hate it. I love to see Fidel's men hiss and weave and feint, as if the Cuban Dance Company is in town using the boxing ring as a set. I hate to see boxers lying on the canvas beginning a journey into a coma.

I love the photographs of the sweat flying off a boxer's head as a punch connects; I hate the idea of his brain careening around his skull as that happens, then bleeding softly. Recently it happened again, as British boxer Paul Ingle was stretcher-ed out of his bout against South African Mbulelo Botile with a blood clot in his brain.

Paule Ingle on the canvassIt was said that Botile was devastated. His manager Mzimasi Mnguni confirmed that: "Mbulelo does not fight to kill, but because it is a sport. He has asked people to pray for Paul Ingle. In the change room, before a fight, we always pray that nobody from either side gets hurt." One presumes that prayers over, legalised assault and battery becomes forgivable.

Ask Michael Watson. He sits in a wheelchair, a shell impersonating a man: in 1991, when knocked down it took 28 minutes for oxygen to be administered, a doctor attending to him more than five minutes after the fight was over.

But boxing has its defenses. Statistics might tell you that more people get killed on Delhi roads in a day than boxers in a year. Promoters might say that ban boxing, and it will go underground, and even the mandatory tests that occur and the ambulances waiting outside, red light blinking, will disappear (Watson's case, it is said, has improved medical care). Boxing they will say is as old as man's inhumanity to man.

Of course, these days such arguments have become invalid. Simply because boxing and racing cars has become as mundane as a game of tiddlywinks. They have been overtaken by the 'adrenaline junkies', a type of people who see flirting with danger as wimpish; they choose to embrace it.

So they surf in space (those goggled goons who exit planes affixed to a board of sorts!!!), kayak in swollen rivers, bungee jump off hot air balloons, crawl through caves, snowboard where avalanches threaten, ski off cliffs, cycle down icy slopes, ride cycles from heights onto airbags, climb never-ending rock faces with no rope just a piece of chalk for better holds...

Why? Edmund Hillary apparently said, when asked about his ascent of Everest, "Because it's there." Does that still suffice as an answer? I mean the 100- year-old man who became the oldest to bungee jump had an excuse, what's everyone else's.

BASE jumpers (BASE being buildings, antennae, span, earth), I read, jump from heights between 100 to 500 ft (with skydivers its closer to 10,000ft and more). Part of the test, one presumes, is never knowing if your parachute will open in time. That's a test? Suddenly that three hour physics test in school seems fun.

So do all parachutes open in time? NO.

One article on the Net tells me that the fastest growing segment in such sports is the 40-plus age group. A great advertisement for fun marriages it isn't. Seems they're not satisfied with their secure, good father, good worker image; ski off a cliff, and in office you're the risk-taking stud (it seems Dale Carnegie type self-help books have a limited market). Other people of course do it because they're not entirely happy unless they're standing on top of car going at 300mph (car top skiing, I hear, will be coming soon to a place near you).

I will not be trying it. Racing cars, I understand. This I do not. There has to be something odd about sports where you have to sign a waiver ("these men are throwing me over a bridge but are not responsible for my demise") and an insurance form before you do it.

Rohit Brijnath

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