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The Gentleman Adventurers Who Invented Alternative Sports

July 28, 2015
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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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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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