After the thrill has gone

Is Felix Baumgartner’s skydive just another stunt for the Facebook generation?

When you watch a man hurl himself out of a hot-air balloon from 120,000 feet above the earth, a lot of things go through your mind.

Like ‘why is that man hurling himself out of a hot-air balloon from 120,000 feet above the earth?’

But when Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner did just that, and the Twitterverse pretty much exploded with awe and hyperbole, something else struck me. There we were – eight million of us watching live on YouTube alone – witnessing one man push his body and technology to the absolute limit, with the very real risk of him perishing in the process.

We were transfixed. He was attempting something extraordinary, for no particular reason other than ‘why not’, and he had a lot of the world watching him.

In 2012, is this what it takes to grab our attention? Does it have to be ‘extreme’ to be noteworthy?

Of course it doesn’t.  But it’s happening more and more.

In sporting terms – because what Baumgartner did was technically a sport – I can think of a couple of examples.

Twenty20 cricket is one in the headlines recently for its World Cup tournament held in Sri Lanka. Personally I don’t like the game, but I concede that its smash-and-grab, high-octane nature does have the ability to get people interested in the game. It doesn’t drag on, it favours the big crowd-pleasing hits, and it comes with enough razzmatazz to keep even a goldfish interested (apparently they have six-second memories, or something like that).

But look at what it’s doing to the game. It’s taking the skill out of it turning it into a quick performance rather than a measured thought-out event. And the big events like the IPL are dangling so much money in front of the players that they’re thinking twice about their national duties. Bowl a few overs in a Twenty20 match, don’t put too much strain on the body, collect a bucket-load of cash… job done.

Sailing’s another example – not so much in the money stakes, but in the loss of an art-form.  

The greatest sailing event in the world is the America’s Cup, which will see its next edition raced in 72-foot catamarans.

The AC72s are a huge departure from the old monohull yachts – for one, they have rigid ‘wing sails’ instead of conventional cloth ones, and as a result can defy the laws of physics and sail twice the speed of the wind! 

The move is, like Twenty20 cricket, designed to get people interested. Super-fast yachts and shorter sailing times make for a better spectacle, especially on television where sailing can look pretty boring to the untrained eye.

But the true joy of sailing is disappearing with these changes. The close duels and the skill of the sailors is being lost replaced with sheer speed and multi-camera angles for – as one sailor said – “the Facebook generation, not the Flintstones generation”.

Maybe I’m being too conservative and not accepting that we simply live in a new age of instant gratification.  

But I can’t help feeling that in the quest for attention and ratings in an increasingly crowded market, we’re sacrificing some real enjoyment for a cheap thrill.

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