The Gentleman Adventurers Who Invented Alternative Sports
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."