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The Gentleman Adventurers Who Invented Alternative Sports

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The next time you go bungee jumping, thank a group of Oxford University students for the experience. If it wasn’t for them, the activity probably wouldn’t exist, and the entire world of extreme sports as we know it today might look very different. 

These student athletes were more inspired by Fellini than fitness, and “training” usually involved little more than buying the champagne. Yet during their heyday, the group—known as the Oxford Club for Dangerous Sports—invented bungee jumping, advanced the sport of hang-gliding, pioneered a bizarre form of skiing, recruited one of the members of Monty Python, and generally made a very entertaining spectacle of themselves. 

Their story began in 1977 in Klosters, Switzerland, where two vacationing Oxford graduate students, David Kirke and Edward Hulton, discovered hang-gliding, then recently imported from California. The pair fell in love with its boundary-pushing yet amateur nature, which allowed for a do-it-yourself thrill that seemed in marked contrast to the rule-bound sports they knew.

“What we hated was the way that formal sports had all these little, important bourgeois instructors saying, ‘You’ve got to get through five-part exams to do this,” Kirke later explained to Vanity Fair. After a few runs in Klosters, and a few drinks, Kirke and friends dreamt up the idea of a Dangerous Sports Club at Oxford—devoted to the silly, the daring, and anything that would annoy bureaucrats. The title was meant to be cheeky: the group wasn’t entirely organized enough to be called a club, and the “sports” they engaged in were more like stunts. 

Club membership consisted of Kirke and a few friends, plus whoever showed up their events. During their activities, the men (they were usually men) dressed in top hats and tails, enjoyed free-flowing champagne, and displayed an almost total disregard for danger. Alongside further hang-gliding experiments—one expedition departed from Mount Kilimanjaro, another from Mount Olympus—other early exploits involved speeding down steep hills in shopping carts, skateboarding alongside the running of the bulls in Spain, and staging a cocktail party on a tiny islet 300 miles off the coast of Scotland. (The latter event turned perilous when the boat headed toward the party’s location sprung a leak, but club members plugged it with the cork from a champagne bottle.)

One of the club’s more memorable activities was a type of surrealist ski race, which they pioneered at St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1983. The fun involved finding or making large objects not normally seen on ski slopes (crew boats, dining tables), attaching skis to them, and then taking off down the hills. During the three years in which the races were held, the contraptions sent down the slopes grew progressively larger and more bizarre—from ironing boards, horse troughs, sofas, carriages, and wheelchairs to small planes, a 4-poster bed, and a grand piano. One competitor built a small desert island, complete with palm tree and shark. “It was impossible to ski,” he told a documentary interviewer, “you just had to sit on it and hope.” 

Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, who participated in several of the club’s events, was going to go down the slopes in 1985 dressed in scrubs, accompanying an operating table covered by a bloody sheet. But he decided to look for a “safer event.” Which was racing down on a Venetian gondola on skis.

Sadly, surreal skiing ended when one member, Lord Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, attempted to send a London double decker down the slopes. That’s when management finally balked.

The group’s most lasting achievement is the sport they pioneered: bungee jumping. As member Chris Baker describes it, he had been using bungee cords to tie hang gliders to his car. One day, he found himself thinking about a film he’d seen in school on the vine jumpers of the South Pacific. (During the harvest ritual of nagol on Pentecost Island, part of Vanuatu, men plunge off wooden towers with vines tied to their ankles. Unlike bungee jumpers, they actually hit the ground.) Baker happened to live close to the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, which rises almost 250 feet above the water. He came up with the idea of jumping off the bridge with the bungee cords tired to his ankles, just as the vines had been tied to the men in Vanuatu.

Baker and friends tested the plan with computer simulations (but not weights, which were deemed unsportsmanlike), then sent out invitations for an all-night party culminating in a jump at dawn on April 1, 1979. They didn’t make it quite at dawn, but otherwise the jump worked as planned—to the surprise of everybody involved. Video footage of the event shows Kirke leaping off the bridge with the champagne bottle still in his hand.

Several members were immediately arrested, but released shortly thereafter after promising to never do it again. They lied. The group followed the first jump with one off the Golden Bridge, and later one off the then-highest bridge in the world, Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge (filmed for the TV program That’s Incredible!). By 1982, they were jumping from mobile cranes and hot air balloons around England. Eventually, the craze caught on around the world. 

Club members also enjoyed hang-gliding from active volcanoes, early BASE jumping, and an early version of zorbing, with a 23 meter diameter plastic ball with two deck chairs inside.

Like many ridiculous European exports, the club made it big in Japan. In the late 1980s, a television company filmed them for a special entitled something like “Extraordinary Freaks of the West.” For the Japanese, Kirke and other members catapulted themselves into an Irish river and tumbled over waterfalls in a mattress. The activities apparently pleased TV audiences, but they came with a price: In one stunt, Kirke was sent off a cliff by a device normally used to launch drones from aircraft carriers, and the G-force broke his spine in two places. He survived, but has dealt with ongoing back issues.

Kirke has faced other troubles in well, including time in jail for credit card fraud. More seriously, in 2002 a student at Oxford was killed after being flung from a reproduction of a medieval trebuchet operated by two former DSC members, who were then running something called the Oxford Stunt Factory. (The extent to which the club continues is a little unclear, although many former members say it fizzled out by the late 1980s.) The pair were charged with manslaughter, although the charges were later dismissed

Overall, by the late 1990s, the club carried out more than 80 projects in more than 40 countries, raised hundreds of thousands of British pounds for charity, and left an indelible footprint on the world of sports. "People may think we are mad,” Kirke has said. "We think they are insane to endure such humdrum lives."

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The Unbelievable Life of the 'John 3:16' Sports Guy
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TheTribeofJudahTeach via YouTube

Sometimes, the man in the rainbow-colored wig would be able to purchase tickets at the stadium gate. Other times, scalpers near the entrance would provide access. Occasionally, television announcers would leave him complimentary admission at the will call window.

If it was a football game, he would try to find a seat behind the goalposts. For NBA and MLB games, behind the backboard or home plate was ideal. A portable, battery-operated television would tell him where the broadcast crew was pointing its cameras. If his preferred seat was being occupied by a child, he’d approach the parents and ask if he could just hold the kid. If they recognized him, they would often oblige.

Once he was settled in, Rollen Stewart would hoist a sign or sport a T-shirt emblazoned with a slightly cryptic message: “John 3:16.” Spiritual devotees recognized it as a Bible verse; others would look it up out of curiosity.

That’s exactly what Stewart wanted. The outlandish wig that earned him the nickname "Rainbow Man," the on-camera visibility, and the homemade message were all intended to spread the Gospel.

Throughout the 1990s, Stewart traveled 60,000 miles a year as a full-time spectator, living out of his car, getting stoned, and using television’s obsession with athletics as a vessel for promoting his faith. In doing so, he made the Bible passage a fixture of professional sporting events.

It was a noble effort—but one Stewart would end up undermining with some increasingly eccentric behavior. The signs gave way to stink bombs, and his cheerfully peculiar persona gradually morphed into a mania that, in 1992, led to an eight-hour standoff with a Los Angeles SWAT team.

By the time he was handed three consecutive life sentences in 1993, Rainbow Man had understandably lost much of his luster. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Sally Lipscomb described him as another “David Koresh waiting to happen.”

Stewart was born in Spokane, Washington in 1945. In interviews, he described his parents as alcoholics. His father passed away when he was 10; his mother died in a fire in 1968. When he was 23, his sister was strangled to death by her boyfriend.

A family inheritance kept him afloat until he found regular work as a drag racer and motorcycle shop owner. Later, Stewart operated a ranch that led to a marijuana farming business. When that ceased to be either profitable or interesting, Stewart decided to head for Hollywood to become an actor.

It was slow going. He netted a Budweiser commercial but was otherwise low on job prospects. Though he was able to pay the bills with what remained of his inheritance and proceeds from the sale of his ranch, Stewart decided that the best way to increase his profile was by drawing attention to himself at sporting events. Donning a rainbow wig and a fur loincloth while performing a dance routine, he made his broadcast television debut during the 1977 NBA Finals. He was dubbed Rainbow Man, or “Rock ‘N Rollen,” a crowd mascot of sorts who could be counted on to deliver a vibrant camera shot when directors felt like juicing their coverage of spectators.

After attending the 1979 Super Bowl in Miami (although some accounts place it during the 1980 game) Stewart went back to his hotel room and turned on the television. It was then, he said, that the epiphany struck. Stumbling on a program called Today in Bible Prophecy, Stewart realized his television exposure could be used in the service of spreading the gospel. So off came the fur loincloth and on went a T-shirt reading “Jesus Saves” in front and “Redeem” in the back. The "John 3:16" sign was the finishing touch. In the King James version of the Bible, it reads:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Stewart liked that it was succinct, making it a perfect visual cue for delivering his sermon to the masses. Living out of his car to save on expenses, he shuttled himself from state to state, and sometimes even out of the country, popping up like the sporting world’s version of Waldo. He was spotted at the Kentucky Derby and the Olympics, and was at the Royal Wedding, where he was seen dancing just underneath the balcony where Princess Diana and Prince Charles stood.

Stewart averaged two events a week. Prime seating was crucial, so he relied on his portable television to show him where the cameras would be pointed. Donations from evangelical groups helped support his ticket and travel costs. As a presumably harmless presence, he could sometimes talk his way into a family block of seats by offering to squeeze in next to a baby.

But not everyone was charmed by Rainbow Man. Directors of sports broadcasts sometimes felt his fanatical presence ruined dramatic moments in games and cursed at him from production trucks. Arena security personnel would often ask him to leave, or block his entry from the start. But Stewart persevered, achieving his earlier goal of becoming a minor celebrity while enticing viewers with his cryptic sign.

At a point in the late 1980s, Stewart began to tire of his own persona. He slipped into a funk after he totaled his car, which limited his ability to travel; his fourth wife filed for divorce in 1990. (They met in 1984 at a Virginia church; she later claimed he tried to choke her at New York's Shea Stadium during the 1986 World Series for not standing in the right spot with her "John 3:16" sign, an allegation he denied.)

Stewart’s faith took a turn for the paranoid. He feared the end times were near, and started being a disruptive presence at events. He set off a remote-controlled air horn during the 1990 Masters golf tournament, just as Jack Nicklaus was about to swing. The following year, an arrest warrant was issued by the Santa Ana, California police after Stewart triggered electronic stink bombs at events in New Jersey and Connecticut and at an Orange County church. Authorities feared he had a firearm and was growing increasingly unhinged. They told the media he should be considered dangerous.

They were correct.

On September 22, 1991, Rollen Stewart was hammering nails into the front door of a room at the Hyatt Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. A terrified maid had locked herself in the bathroom. Stewart was armed with a .45 revolver and several stink bombs, which he would periodically lob toward the law enforcement officers gathering outside his room.

By Stewart’s own account, his desire to warn the world of a pending apocalypse had gotten out of hand. Barricading himself in the hotel, he demanded that the SWAT unit deliver a news crew so he could address the audience directly; SWAT was more concerned with making sure Stewart didn’t begin taking errant shots at planes that were landing at the airport less than 2000 feet away.

The standoff went on for over eight hours, at which point a squad smashed the door in and tackled Stewart. Faced with 11 charges, Stewart had the proverbial book thrown at him. With the Los Angeles deputy district attorney arguing he was a “very sick and very dangerous man,” he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms and shuttled to Mule Creek State Prison on August 3, 1993, where he has remained ever since. As of 2008, three parole hearings have resulted in three denials.

While Stewart’s personal legacy may have come to an unfortunate climax, his message has not. “John 3:16” has been a regular sight at sporting events for over three decades now, and has even been adopted by several athletes. Tim Tebow famously wore strips under his eyes with the verse written out during a 2009 Florida Gators collegiate game; In-N-Out Burger has printed it on the bottom of drinking cups; Forever 21 shoppers have likely noticed it on their shopping bags. Men like Canada-based Bill King have carried on Stewart’s mission, traveling to games and raising the sign in the hopes that the enduring popularity of sports on television will remain a viable way of inviting people to join their faith.

For Stewart, who saw some of the biggest sporting moments of the 1980s, attendance was a necessary evil. Speaking with the Los Angeles Times in 2008 from prison, he admitted that his old life involved a little bit of pretending.

“I despised sports,” he said.

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Evel Knievel, Insurance Salesman
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To his coworkers at the Combined Insurance Company of America in Chicago, he was just Bob. A few months shy of his 24th birthday and newly married, Bob was ambitious, charming, and sincere—all qualities company president W. Clement Stone valued in his salesmen. To push high-volume, short-term disability insurance, customers needed to trust their words. Bob Knievel could look a man in the eyes and tell him that $3 worth of insurance was money well spent, and they'd believe him.

Years later, when Bob adopted the Evel Knievel persona and made breaking his bones a spectator sport, his former colleagues would stare at their televisions in amazement. There went Bob, clearing 10 or 14 or 20 cars on a motorcycle. There lies Bob, a heap of fractured limbs that needed to be scraped off the pavement like chewing gum.

In the span of just a few short years, the best insurance salesman in his assigned district had become the most famous daredevil in the world.

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Born in Butte, Montana, in 1938, Robert Knievel stole his first motorcycle at the age of 13. Prone to delinquency and petty crime, he failed to get a high school diploma and instead entered the U.S. Army Reserves. By the time he was 19 years old, he was out of uniform and starting up a semi-pro hockey team, drawing crowds at local arenas and even playing Olympic hopefuls from the Czech Republic. (Knievel’s team lost 22-3.)

By 1960, any discernible skills beyond mediocre athleticism and amoral behavior weren’t quite ready to reveal themselves. Knievel struck upon the idea of becoming a merchant policeman in Butte, which was a fancy term for being a private security specialist. Knievel would approach businesses and promise he’d act as a kind of sentry, checking their locations for suspicious activity and thwarting any robbery or vandalism attempts.

What Knievel wouldn’t admit until much later was that he was frequently the perpetrator of that activity, breaking windows and robbing the registers of businesses that didn’t sign up for his services. It was his version of property insurance.

A few things conspired to redirect Knievel’s ambitions. He married Linda Bork in 1959, and the couple started a family. He also grew concerned that Butte authorities were close to catching up with his security monitoring scam. In the summer of 1962, Knievel decided to go straight and become a salesman for Combined Insurance.

The company’s district manager in Montana dispatched Knievel to Chicago, where he underwent a two-week training course in sales tactics endorsed by president W. Clement Stone. Stone had co-authored a book, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, and considered it his business gospel. The lessons were at the level of fortune cookies and free of cynicism (“Big doors swing on little hinges,” “Thinking will not overcome fear, but action will”) but Knievel never once rolled his eyes. He absorbed the strategies and hit the road back in his home state, prepared to sell the $3 policies and collect his 60 cents per signature.

Earning an honest living at that rate would require volume. So Knievel traveled to working-class towns and paid bars to allow him to set up an “office” in a booth, where he could catch the steady stream of farmers coming in for a drink. He stopped workers at a train repair station during lunch breaks, and preached the virtues of the payments Combined would offer in the event the insured had an accident. Sometimes he’d pass up the $3 and do barter trades, like when a rancher once offered to give him a lame horse.

If Knievel had a crowning moment in his gone-straight, suit-and-tie life, it was when he set a district record for the most policies sold in a single week. He had talked his way into a state mental hospital in Warm Springs, Montana, and sold coverage to the staff—and if company legend is to be believed, to many of the hospital's patients as well. Knievel logged 271 sign-ups that week.

For this, Knievel got an award and recognition; he was feted by company executives as an example of the can-do spirit their president endorsed. While he enjoyed the attention, what Bob really wanted was to occupy the office of the vice president. When Combined refused to promote him, he quit. Without advancement in sight, making a living out of a suitcase ceased to be appealing. Knievel wanted to do something else.

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After leaving Combined, Knievel returned to his rudderless lifestyle. He found work at a motorcycle shop in Wyoming and thought a good way to drum up business would be to hop on a bike and try to jump over a pit infested with rattlesnakes.

It was.

That then gave him the idea to jump greater distances, which eventually led to him convincing the operators of Caesars Palace that he could make the 150-foot jump over the fountains near the front entrance of their Las Vegas resort and casino. He didn’t make it, but footage of the 1967 wipeout was absolutely mesmerizing: Airborne one minute and tumbling on the ground the next, Knievel looked like a crash test dummy. Convalescing in the hospital with multiple broken bones, Knievel’s popularity soared. He became one of the most famous men in America in the 1970s, rivaled only by Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali.

Matt Tonning, one of Knievel’s former coworkers at Combined, was one of the millions of people who saw the footage. He was alarmed, but not because of the gruesome outcome. Over the years, Knievel had phoned Tonning to catch up and buy policies—10 in all, which was nine more than a salesperson was technically allowed to sell to any one person. Tonning liked Knievel so much that he usually just entered another salesman’s name to complete the transaction. The policies could not be canceled and covered any accident.

At no point did Knievel ever list his current occupation: daredevil.

Tonning was fired. When Knievel heard of his friend’s dismissal, he agreed to drop claims on nine of the policies.

If there were any hard feelings, Knievel never voiced them. He would later credit the unflinching optimism of Stone and his book as one of the key reasons he became a professional cheater of death. Staring up at the ramps that would launch him into the air, those sales lessons led him to believe he could make it—even when past experience proved otherwise.

Additional Sources: Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel.

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