Part of the undeniable appeal of sports is the simple fact that we normal people watching from our couches could never hope to compete at such a level. For some sports, like basketball, baseball, or tennis, we can still get out there and play even though we’re not necessarily experts. But there are other sports that non-experts should stay away from at all costs—the only safe way to enjoy them is from that couch.
Athletes die in every sport, from cardiac arrests during marathons to heat exhaustion during football practice to every manner of accident or medical condition, but some sports seem to carry most of their appeal simply in the brazen and interesting ways they find to stare death in the face—daring it to take them without ceremony on a city street or in a lonely cave. Those who make their livings playing these sports are a very special kind of crazy, from the first person to ever tow out to a giant wave in the middle of a storm to the first person to realize how incredible it would be to drop onto a mountain from a chopper and ski down it. They need speed, danger and adrenaline, and TV loves all three. Modern gladiators often facing no one but themselves and the elements, these death defiers are constantly pushing the limits of what humans can do, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few who lost their lives in the search for the ultimate thrills.
Whether it’s flinging a limestone ball 200 miles an hour at someone’s head, attempting to subdue a massive, deadly beast or just jumping out of a plane, these sports represent the very pinnacle of human courage. And hey, you could get hit by a bus at any time, right? May as well live it up: work hard and play deadly.
15 Street Luge
The first so-called “gravity sport” in our lineup is street luge, an activity that is most closely compared to skateboarding on your back. Distant, demented cousin of traditional luge, which takes place on a closed track and is remarkably dangerous despite it, street luge carries the added dangers of debris, bad road conditions, and of course bales of goddamned hay (warning: graphic injury). The only reason why it’s so low on this list is that if people actually confined street luge to enclosed, maintained areas like traditional luge has, it would be half as dangerous.
Beer-bellied dudes in the bleachers can debate about whether cheerleading is a sport until they’re blue in the face, but they’re never going to go flipping through the air like a rag doll only to feel the cardiac incident-inducing pull of gravity and know that only that weird dude from Bio class and his biceps are standing between them and a broken neck. In 2008, Lauren Chang of Newton, Mass died during a cheerleading competition after being kicked in the chest and this incident was odd for the sport only because it wasn’t head trauma that tragically ended her life.
Skiing deaths are rare when the skiing takes place on the controlled runs and slopes of a tourist-laden ski resort. But for some, the thrill of a double black diamond patrolled by able-bodied north country people simply doesn’t pack enough thrills. These intrepid skiers only get the adrenaline pumping when they have to jump out of a low-flying helicopter like Vietnam War infantrymen. Frightening as that part is, it’s not likely to be the chopper flight that kills you in heliskiing: it’s the snow itself. Because the sport takes place up in high mountain passes with snow untouched by humans, avalanches are the most common killer of heliskiers.
12 Scuba Diving
Fighters have been dying in the ring since long before boxing was the sport we know of today—in fact, The Marquis of Queensbury rules, which brought gloves to the sport, among other advancements, were largely the result of the danger inherent in bare-knuckle fighting. Head trauma is nothing to play around with in general and when it’s delivered by someone whose hands are considered lethal weapons, it can often be deadly. As recently as 1994, an active boxer had killed two men in the ring. Two opponents of the Welterweight David Gonzales died after their meetings: Rico Velasquez and Robert Wangila.
10 Bull Fighting
Bull fighting is one of the most controversial sports on the planet, and for good reason. In theory, it’s nice that a bull gets the chance to fight for his life rather than led down a dready ramp to a meat grinder, but in practice the bull rarely has much of a chance. Hemingway romanticism aside, toreadors know exactly what they’re getting into—and sometimes they get gored. It’s part of the action. This is a much sadder prospect in Portugal than Spain or Mexico, because Portuguese bullfighters do not aim to maim or kill the animal. They only test their own speed, courage and discipline against the raging beast, which is a little more badass than stabbing it a bunch of times before dancing in front of it.
9 Bull Riding
America’s answer to the tradition of ornery-animal sports brought over from the old world, pro bull riding is the ultimate attempt to prove that cowboys are more headstrong than their most angry and powerful pieces of livestock. Often, this involves horns to the head, neck and face, blunt force trauma to the same, and hoofprints from ass to ankles. In 2013, a 16-year-old bull rider was killed after she was thrown from her bull and kicked, and the next year saw a Mexican fan favorite killed in Tlachinola Pue after he was thrown. Bull riding is another sport where no amount of practice can take away the fundamental risk.
8 Jai Alai
During the beginning of America’s strange 50-year love affair with the Basque game of jai alai, it was touted as The Game of Dodging Death. Imagine racquetball ratcheted up to such a degree that the ball is too hard and moving too fast to handle with bare hands or even a baseball glove or lacrosse stick. It requires a specially-made basket, and the front wall against which this ball is thrown has to be comprised of solid granite, the only material strong enough to endure the beating of repeated jai alai balls, called pelotas. If you’re not lightning-quick in jai alai—and able to run up the cement side walls of the fronton like Bo Jackson in Baltimore—it could mean the difference between life and death.
7 Auto Racing
When someone is scared of flying, it’s an old standby technique to explain to them how it’s statistically more dangerous driving a car than it is flying in an airplane, and objectively, auto racing deaths tend to be among the most gruesome in sport, lending credence to half-assed flight crews everywhere. Any readers old enough to remember Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal 2001 crash (warning: graphic) can attest to the brutality of motorsport, and NASCAR pales in comparison to Formula 1. The particularly bloody 1994 San Marino Grand Prix took the lives of both Roland Ratzenberger, an Austrian driver, and fan favorite, Ayrton Senna of Brazil on consecutive days.
6 Motorcycle Racing
As insanely dangerous as taking a car around a racetrack at speeds of more than 200 miles an hour is, it’s even more death-defying to take on those same tracks at those same speeds on two wheels. In particular, the Isle of Man TT, held on the large independent island in the Irish Sea, has killed more than 240 riders in its 100 years of existence. Held on public roads rather than a closed track, the racers often have to contend with subpar conditions, including potholes and debris, as they jockey for first place in what has gained a well-deserved reputation as the deadliest race in the world.
Personally, I’d have to be dragged skydiving by an extremely attractive and adventurous date, because whenever I dream about jumping, my parachute is always full of forks, knives, and colanders—Looney Tunes style. But of these sports, skydiving is one of the ones that best mitigates its risk. In order to do it, you have to first do it a bunch of times strapped crotch-to-ass with a bonafide expert. Then you have to take a diver’s ed class. Only then are you considered educated enough to foolishly put your life on the line. Their fatality numbers have also improved over time, as the numbers of deaths from skidiving have dropped from 71 in 2004 to 37 in 2014, according to Dropzone.com. It’s also worth noting that skydiving, as opposed to bull riding or heliskiing, has a chance of making your death pretty quick.
4 Big Wave Surfing
Big wave surfing is one of the purest forms of toying with mother nature and when it’s done successfully, catching a giant wave is one of the most graceful feats that is possible to perform while staring a gruesome death directly in the face. While some sports on this list offer death by blunt force, death by impaling, and a dozen other freakish ways to die, big wave surfers generally die in one of the most simple—and horrifying—ways imaginable: drowning. Big wave surfing has lost some of its most promising young talents, from Mark Foo to Peter Davi, because the nature of the sport is to find the most dangerous situation possible and conquer it anyway.
As opposed to something like street luge or jai alai, swimming seems like a pretty innocuous activity, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, “From 2005-2009, there were an average of 3,533 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States.” That makes simply entering the open water one of the most dangerous sporting activities humans engage in on a regular basis. Because swimming requires no significant athletic experience when compared to other sports on this list, more everyday people regularly submit themselves to the whimsy of the ocean while swimming than have ever mounted a street luge board.
2 Cave Diving
As explained above, scuba is a dangerous enough proposition, but when you add the danger inherent in exploring a cave to the already-perilous prospect of diving, it becomes exponentially more deadly. Some cave diving destinations offer trips through underwater formations no wider than a hallway and hundreds of feet below the surface. If something goes wrong with your gear in open water, it’s hard enough to make an emergency ascent without the added danger of first having to follow your steps out of an underwater maze of stalagmites.
1 BASE Jumping
Skydiving without the benefit of air travel, base jumping narrows the margin of error by bringing the sport closer to the ground. Carrying just one parachute and aided by a flight suit that allows them to glide like flying squirrels, jumpers have made everything from the Grand Canyon to the world’s tallest buildings a forum for their adrenaline fix. 264 people have died base jumping, which when compared to the relatively small sample size of total jumpers, makes for an incredibly high death rate. And just like other sports on this list, it doesn’t matter how good you get at base jumping—one errant gust of wind could mean your life.