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The world's scariest sports

A round up of high-adrenaline spectacles that have begun to draw onlookers and participants from among the world’s highest income brackets. The dual thrills of cultural discovery and physical danger prove irresistible to alpha-level achievers who thrive on risk.
Dustier and, at times, more scenic than snow- or sand-boarding, volcano surfing is the sport of choice for adventurers eager to hang ten on a steep mountainside of ash and /
/ Source: Forbes

“When you run the bulls in Pamplona, the point is not to race them — it’s to catch them, to face them as long as you can.”

So says 61-year-old Spaniard Carlos Gil, and he should know. Gil has been running the bulls since the age of 18, and has seen the event evolve from a unique local tradition into the world-famous televised spectacle it has become. Whereas young Americans or Europeans might run once or twice — thereby earning a lifetime of bragging rights back home — Gil runs each of the eight mornings of el encierro (literally, “the enclosing") during the Festival of San Fermin in Navarre, Spain, every year. He has run every section of the half-mile itinerary — from the exciting first sprint, through the crowded cobblestone midway, to the final exhilarating stretch leading into the bullring.

Of all the thrilling components of the Pamplona run, Gil’s favorite is that first moment — which takes place just 150 yards away from the stable where the bulls sleep.

“When we hear that first firecracker,” Gil explains, “it means the first bull has left the stable, and we start moving forward. When we hear the second, it means the last has left. I wait and count about 8 seconds. Then I turn around, and usually the bulls are there.”

Gil has been running with the same group of locals for decades. Armed with only a newspaper to distract one of the beasts in the event of a catastrophe, they run in place in the middle of the street until the bull is just a yard or two away — before diving to one side, away from the animal’s horns and hooves.

Meanwhile, spectators from all over the world line the streets and pack the bullring, cheering on friends and screaming warnings to the runners in the greatest peril.

Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls is just one of several high-adrenaline spectacles that have begun to draw onlookers and participants from among the world’s highest income brackets. The dual thrills of cultural discovery and physical danger prove irresistible to alpha-level achievers who thrive on risk.

And then there's elephant polo, a more genteel variation on the traditional sport of equestrian polo and one that's played in India and Southeast Asia. Naturally, elephants are a lot slower than horses; so that means the matches are more about pageantry and fun than actual competition.

“Elephant Polo has historically been one of India’s ultimate royal experiences,” says luxury tour operator Kim Mitchell of Asia TransPacific Journeys. “The colossal size of the elephant — its playful antics, graceful gait and the wisdom of its eyes — move all who are lucky enough to take part in this event.”

Iamge: Cliff diving
Richard Eyre

Mitchell often brings guests to the polo fields, either to play or to watch. “You can do the whole white-glove, champagne, hors d’oeuvres thing. There’s betting going on, and it takes place on the grounds of an old palace.”

Of course, most extreme sports competitions take place in extreme conditions, without the benefit of a roof or stadium seating for audience members. Take, for example, the SCORE Baja 1000, an off-road race (featuring all manner of engine-blasting vehicles, from motorcycles to VWs to buggies) that traverses the entire length of the Baja Peninsula. The race takes an entire week to run, but spectators mainly flock to the finish line, located just outside of Cabo San Lucas.

Then there’s the downright perilous sports — like cliff diving. So dangerous that it’s rarely sponsored by a company or sanctioned by a governing body, cliff diving is nonetheless one of the most exciting sports to witness, even if your vantage point is set hundreds of feet back from the action.

The divers of La Quebrada in Acapulco are arguably the sports most celebrated stars. For more than six decades, these daredevil human missiles have wowed tourists with their graceful — and incredibly dangerous — freefall descents. From cliffs nearly 150 feet high, the divers plummet into the sea, often performing flips or other tricks on the trip down.

Competitive free diving, meanwhile, is one of the world’s most controversial sports, due to the unnatural physical extremes under which divers put their bodies. Participants regularly plunge to depths of 400 or 500 feet, holding a single breath for as long as three to four minutes. Spectators at a free diving competition accompany the competitors in a boat to the dive site. Once there, two viewing options are available: Either snorkel on the surface and watch as the divers disappear into the murky depths (“the cheap seats”), or scuba dive 50 to 75 feet below, and witness the action from a fish-eye’s view (“front row” seats).

A more conventional — but no less precarious — water sport is white-water rafting, which under the best of conditions is still a true adventure. But for those who participate in the biennial World Rafting Championships, it can be either reputation-making or bone-breaking. Each championship is held at a location so dangerous, that a typical weekend white-water-rafter wouldn’t even think of wading into the river. In 2007, the competition took place in Korea’s daunting Naerinchon River. Previous years’ events were held in similarly brutal waterways in South America.

Chile, with its geographical and climatic extremes, is ideally suited to extreme sports of all kinds; and it is the self-anointed “birthplace of sand skiing.” This sport, which originated in the country’s Atacama Desert, takes place on sand dunes instead of ski slopes, and in 100-degree heat instead of below-zero chill.

Nicaragua, country of countless volcanoes, has recently one-upped Chile with a new, highly specialized activity known as “volcano surfing” or “ash boarding.” Participants spend an hour hiking to the summit of the 1200-foot Cerro Negro; then they soar down on a “sandboard” — a snowboard that has been adapted for the ash, sand and cinder surface of the volcano.

“The slope of the mountainside is 40 degrees — perfect for a good speed,” says Pierre Gedeon of Nicaragua Adventures, who was among the first to introduce volcano surfing to the public. Gedeon originally tried to navigate the rocky drops with skis, but switched to the adapted board because he found it easier for casual athletes to manage.

“The maximum speed is 25 miles an hour,” he says, “and we have even done it in the active crater. But we can’t seem to bring people — it’s too dangerous.”

For now. By 2009, it may be a whole different story — that is, if the new breed of thrill-seeking travelers has anything to say about it.