Extreme Sports in France: Live Fast, Die Young and Leave a Beautiful Video

It’s a Matter of Perception...

December 14, 2016By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Most people see this and think, “BFD” (“Big French Derrick-like-thing”). Others see it and think, “How can I sneak a bungee cord past security?”

Paris has long been a magnet for dreamers of all kinds: poets, painters, composers, philosophers, wisenheimers… Oh — and people who are intent on killing themselves in the dumbest but most mediagenic way possible.

I was reminded of the last-named group by a recent news story about five teenagers who jumped onto the roof of a Métro train at the Passy stop and “surfed” on it across the Seine, going over the bridge that Marlon Brando screamed under in Last Tango in Paris. (He had just read the screenplay all the way through for the first time.)

A video that they made of their adventure went viral, or perhaps fungal, racking up more than 100,000 views on YouTube (as I said, mediagenic). And the fearless five, who weren’t killed like another Métro surfer in 2013 but face prosecution (as I said, dumb), are not the first to pull such dim-witted shenanigans in the City of Light.

Paris’s history of death-and-sanity-defying feats of derring-do (and in many cases derring-shouldn’t-have) dates at least as far back as 1912, when a certain Franz Reichelt base-jumped off the Eiffel Tower.

Anticipating the predominance of visual content, Reichelt was foresighted enough to have his leap filmed. But not enough to test his homemade parachute-suit beforehand — it proved to be about as effective as flapping his arms, and he proceeded in rapid succession to the ground, the hospital and the hereafter.

When I watched the film (not for the squeamish — we can be glad that it’s in black and white), it occurred to me: even Wile E. Coyote would at least have tried the thing with an Acme anvil first.

This started me thinking about the widely differing degrees of practice and preparation put in by various kinds of Parisian thrill-seekers, who have in no way been discouraged by Reichelt’s fatal failure. (Hey — he’s got his own Wikipedia page!)

At the low end of the scale are the three young guys whom I happened to see a few years ago bumming a ride on a city bus — not by dodging the fare, but by hanging onto the back wearing skates. And conspiratorial grins. But no helmets.

In this instance, the mediagenicity-to-dumbness ratio was heavily imbalanced toward the latter: no one was making a video, which no one would have wanted to watch anyway, and the city of Paris is not exactly world-renowned for its glassy-smooth streets. One little pothole and they would have gone from clinging outside to reclining inside a public vehicle — a smaller, faster one that gets to run lights.

But of course, as any teenager can tell you, the laws of physics don’t kick in until after your 20th birthday. Fortunately, the driver was over 20 and, not wishing to be the defendant in a manslaughter trial (spoilsport!), he stopped the bus as soon as he noticed the human remoras and chased them off.

So they skated away, but not without first insulting the driver’s appearance, intellectual competence and mother. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Their exchange might as well have gone like this:

Driver: “I don’t want you to die a horrific, senseless, grotesquely premature death.”

Skaters: “Oh yeah?! Well *#&@ you!”

Also low on the skill spectrum, I would list flagpole sitting, which was once a fad in the United States but never caught on in France. In this case, the primary qualification seems to be the ability to endure long periods of tedium. And, presumably, to “hold it.”

That and immunity to acrophobia (the psychiatric term for “common sense”).

Then we have life-threatening tests of stamina and tenacity as practiced by the American illusionist David Blaine, who has been buried alive for a week, encased in a block of ice for three days, etc. Here the primary qualification seems to be the ability to endure being David Blaine.

Moving up, we come to the Métro surfers, who at least exercise some coordination, balance and judgment (especially when a low tunnel entrance is about to decapitate them), and the American woman who surfed the Catacombs — literally, on a surfboard — last October, risking hypothermia in a bikini and, I suppose, bone-dust poisoning, but coming out alive.

Then there are the base jumpers, who continue to sprinkle themselves off the tops of various tall structures around town. They have to have parachute training, although that doesn’t always ensure that they live to see their view count: a Norwegian man fell from the Eiffel Tower to his death in 2005.

Approaching the high end, we come to the devotees of freerunning, or parkour, a demanding and dangerous sport originated by Frenchman David Belle and his father Raymond. It’s sort of like the children’s game “don’t touch the floor” only using a city instead of a living room.

The term “parkour” is derived from the French word parcours, which, depending on the context, means “path,” “career,” “obstacle course” or “the shortest possible route from an intensive workout to intensive care.”

Parkour takes real athletic prowess — as do the exploits of Frenchman Alain Robert, a.k.a. the Homme Araignée (Spiderman). Robert is apparently a claustrophobe, although not an acrophobe: he likes to go up tall buildings, but only on the outside.

With no ropes, net or any equipment other than climbing boots and chalk, he somehow manages to scale skyscrapers, so far including eight in Paris plus the Eiffel Tower, getting a hand- and toehold on whatever he can: ledges, sills, bolt heads, the gaping mouths of observers in open windows, etc.

All that makes quite a spread on the skill range, with the bus-hitchers’ prep work consisting essentially of being foolhardy and, at the other end of the gamut, the Spider-homme having patiently developed an array of physical capacities rarely attained in human history. In addition to being foolhardy.

Still, the purpose of all that training is to climb vertical surfaces — a literally one-dimensional goal. It’s kind of like learning to be a virtuoso pianist and then playing nothing but scales.

Of course, what makes the difference is that, for whatever reason, people like to watch someone spit in the Grim Reaper’s eye (or rather empty eye sockets): for a pianist in concert, the downside of goofing up is getting boos from the audience and possibly fewer gigs, whereas for Alain Robert on the 50th floor of the Montparnasse Tower, the downside of goofing up is boos from the street cleaners and definitely no more gigs ever.

Pursuing this line of thought, I conclude that to draw attention as a Parisian (or anywhere-ian) daredevil, you need to follow this three-step procedure:

1) Risk your life by doing something so stupefyingly reckless that no rational person, and not that many irrational people, would even dream of it;

2) Get it on camera;

3) Live through it (optional).

To which I must add an important footnote: the choice of stunt in point number one is crucial. Merely putting your life on the line isn’t enough — the selected activity has to have at least a modicum of visual appeal.

An alcoholic drug addict smoking cigarettes while on hunger strike would, technically, fulfill the criterion, but no one would want to watch that. At least now that Andy Warhol is dead.

Also, given the by-no-means-guaranteed nature of point number three, it requires a certain kind of mentality to accomplish all of this. Are you wondering if you have what it takes to be France’s next urban Evel Knievel (Malfaisance Knalfaisance)?

Here’s a simple quiz to find out:


Do you see the emergency room as half full or half empty?

© 2016 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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