The Gentleman Adventurers Who Invented Alternative Sports

iStock.com/VisualCommunications
iStock.com/VisualCommunications

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."

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

10 Fascinating Facts About Chinese New Year

iStock.com/aluxum
iStock.com/aluxum

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning January 25 in 2020, China will welcome the Year of the Rat, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. Chinese New Year was originally meant to scare off a monster.

Nian at Chinese New Year
iStock.com/jjMiller11

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A lot of families use Chinese New Year as motivation to clean the house.

woman ready to clean a home
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While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. Chinese New Year will prompt billions of trips.

Man waiting for a train.
iStock.com/MongkolChuewong

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. Chinese New Year involves a lot of superstitions.

Colorful pills and medications
iStock.com/FotografiaBasica

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. Some people rent boyfriends or girlfriends for Chinese New Year to soothe their parents.

Young Asian couple smiling
iStock.com/RichVintage

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. Red envelopes are everywhere during Chinese New Year.

a person accepting a red envelope
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An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. Chinese New Year can create record levels of smog.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
iStock.com/lusea

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. Black clothes are a bad omen during Chinese New Year.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
iStock.com/lusea

So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. Chinese New Year leads to planes being stuffed full of cherries.

Bowl of cherries
iStock.com/CatLane

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand. In 2017, Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. Panda Express is hoping Chinese New Year will catch on in America.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

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