by Elle Reynolds, a CDAE Public Communication major at the University of Vermont.
In 2016, more than 30 people died from BASE jumping all over the world, the largest annual death toll to date. BASE is an acronym that stands for Building, Antenna, Span (bridge), and Earth – all static objects that can only be jumped off of with a parachute. As BASE jumping is one of the fastest growing extreme sports, it may seem natural that as more athletes participate, more jumpers run the risk of fatalities. However, the death toll in 2016 did not correlate with the growing rate of the sport. Many jumpers have analyzed the numerous reasons why jumpers have died, and skills or abilities do not seem to be factor. According to BASE jumper Steph Davis, the one thing that BASE jumping accidents have in common is that the people are pushing the limits. In 2016, most BASE jumping accidents involved wingsuiters that were flying very close to the ground, also known as proximity flying. Proximity flying became known to the public in the early 2000’s, when jumpers started posting videos of their flights on YouTube. It wasn’t long before media attention lead to BASE athletes receiving sponsorships, which has allowed many jumpers to make a career from such a dangerous sport. With no formal leagues or competitions in wingsuiting or BASE jumping, just like many other extreme sports, athletes who chose to make a living off of the sport must turn to media in order to receive recognition.
Earning the experience to become talented enough to jump off of cliffs and fly wingsuits through narrow passes – which is what the media loves – is very difficult. In the summer of 2016, a man named Armin Schmieder decided to live stream a wingsuit BASE jump on Facebook. Seconds after jumping off the cliff, Schmieder crashed into the earth, ultimately live streaming his own death to the public. After his death, sources revealed that Schmieder was not a very advanced wingsuit jumper, who wasn’t cleared to be jumping with a camera. BASE jumping and media have always been intertwined, and Schmieder’s death is not the first to happen in pursuit of creating media content. Sponsored athletes are typically forced to push the limits in order to create advertising content. Dunkin Donuts made a commercial in 2016 of professional wingsuiter Ellen Brennan flying about 20 feet above the side of a mountain, where she flies past a Dunkin’ Donuts stand at the end. On top of performing a very dangerous stunt, Brennan had to battle poor weather conditions. Due to the tight timeline of commercial filming, Brennan was forced to jump even when the weather could have fatally affected the outcome of her stunt. Luckily, Brennan survived and successfully pulled off the stunt that Dunkin Donuts paid her to do. However, this doesn’t mean companies should continue pushing athletes to perform the next most dangerous task in order to create media content. In fact, it may be what is killing the most athletes overall.
Andrew Bisharat has researched and analyzed why so many BASE jumpers died in his 2016 article for National Geographic. According to Bisharat, BASE jumping isn’t the only extreme sport that puts athletes at high risk to create media content. Several skiers have died while being filmed to create media content for films and social media posts for sponsors. According to Heike Puchan, a communications expert, using extreme sports for marketing is rapidly growing in popularity. Puchan believes that this phenomenon will continue growing, and continue to bring in fresh content for companies looking to redefine their brand. Puchan fails to note the risk factor that most athletes must endure when signing contracts with sponsors, and only analyzes the topic from a business standpoint. When wingsuit BASE jumping is used as a form of marketing, the athletes enter a countdown of their own life against time. Perhaps the best example of an extreme sports athlete that has barely managed to survive over the years is Jeb Corliss. Sponsored by GoPro, Corliss is actually teased in the BASE world because he is known to wear five or six cameras when performing some of his crazy stunts. In an article for Outside Online, Devon O’Neil writes about Corliss’ journey and near death experiences. Corliss has stated that “jumping has become 100% of work for me. I now deem the sport too dangerous just to do it for fun.” Corliss nearly killed himself after he crashed into Table Mountain in 2012, and is one of the few miraculous BASE jumping crash survivors. Only a year after this crash, Red Bull China contacted Corliss about flying through a 15 foot pass on the side of Langshan Mountain. The Chinese government allowed for Red Bull to take over the site for a live streamed televised event, where Corliss jumped through the narrow pass. While Corliss was successful, O’Neil, along with many others believe that it is just a test of time. Eventually, this sport will kill the athletes. Added media coverage only expedites this process, especially when they’re pushing athletes to progress the sport in more dangerous direction for their own benefit.