“It was very important to do or die, or try, but with style. Even a failure was good, as long as you did it with some style or you made an effort.”
On the morning of 1st April 1979, four people, two dressed in morning suits (one complete with a top hat, clutching a bottle of champagne), jumped off the 101-metre-high Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. Rather than swiftly meeting their maker, they were instead soon met by police officers, journalists and a place in extreme sports history. They had just invented bungee jumping.
The four were members of the Dangerous Sports Club (or DSC) – a group started by Oxford University students seemingly intent on injuring themselves in as imaginative a way as possible. The objective of the club, said one of the founding members, was “going and doing somewhat silly or dangerous things which were fun and would annoy bureaucrats.”
The smart attire of one of the jumpers was a trademark of the club. “Ready for the undertaker” was the joke. The undertaker certainly must have been expecting them. They hadn’t tested the ropes with a weight beforehand because it would be “unseemly”. “We were called the Dangerous Sports Club,” said David Kirke, the first jumper and chairman of the DSC, on the 40th anniversary of the jump. “Testing it first wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous.”
They had been fortunate that the police hadn’t been there to stop them. Two understandably terrified sisters of one of the jumpers had both separately called the Bristol police asking them to arrest their brother and anyone else who might be trying to jump. The police had been waiting at the bridge that morning but the members had been up all night partying (which, as with most Oxford societies, seemed to be the chief priority of the club). By the time they arrived the police had left, thinking that it was an April Fool’s joke. Officers soon returned, along with journalists, and the pioneers were bundled into the cars of the police who, with no precedent, weren’t entirely sure how to deal with the situation. In the end the jumpers were let off with a night in jail and a fine. They were even brought their half-drunk bottles of wine to finish.
Later in 1979, the DSC took their bungee jumping to the Golden Gate Bridge. This time, two of the jumpers had planned an escape, lowering themselves down onto a boat which took them to a waiting getaway car. They drove to the airport, listening to reports of their jump on the radio as they made their exit, leaving other members of the group to face to police.
The club went on to perform jumps from cranes, hot air balloons and other bridges, including one sponsored by American TV show That’s Incredible! from the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado (at the time the highest bridge in the world). They also ventured into reverse bungee jumping, in which a bungee is attached to a crane and the person is tied to the ground by a rope which is cut, flinging the subject into the air.
The idea for bungee jumping (a term coined by the DSC) had come from the land diving ritual performed by people on Pentecost Island in the southern Pacific. In this custom, men jump from towers up to 30 metres high with carefully selected vines attached to their ankles which break their fall just before they hit the ground. The practice of land diving had been brought to a wider audience by National Geographic and a BBC documentary from, you guessed it, David Attenborough (as if this man was not already enough of a legend, he’s also a (minor) character in the invention of bungee jumping). The exploits of the Dangerous Sports Club made bungee jumping a global phenomenon.
A video of club members performing bungee jumps was seen by New Zealander A.J. Hackett, who popularised the activity commercially. Having first completed some jumps himself, including from the Auckland Stock Exchange Tower (the first bungee jump from a building), Auckland Harbour Bridge and the Eiffel Tower, he established the first commercial bungee operation at the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge in Queenstown, New Zealand in 1988. By 2008, the New Zealand economy had benefitted from bungee jumping by an estimated £375million.
In contrast, The Dangerous Sports Club never profited much from its pursuits, despite some vague attempts. Instead, it was “dedicated to creating new sports – or at least, taking a new approach to existing ones.” Other semi-suicidal activities included: hang-gliding off Mt. Olympus and Mt. Kilimanjaro; riding shopping carts down steep hills (20 years before Jackass); BASE jumping down Cheddar Gorge (which had never been done before and involved landing on a road) and from an electricity pylon (surely a bad idea on a number of counts); floating across the English Channel on a giant inflatable kangaroo sponsored by Foster’s Lager (which resulted in a prosecution for flying without a pilot’s licence); flying a microlight around the Houses of Parliament wearing a gorilla suit and playing a saxophone; and building a human catapult to launch people into a river. Only the designer of the catapult volunteered for this feat – surprisingly, no one else was willing. Perhaps the fact that this time they had actually tested it with a few dummies meant it had lost its appeal to other members.
Another of the club’s claims to fame is that Nigella Lawson attended a party of theirs and played croquet on a sedan carried by four members of the club, captured on film by well-known social photographer Dafydd Jones.
Another of the club’s parties was held on Rockall (I know, I had never heard of it either). It is a small granite islet 370 km west of the Outer Hebrides claimed by the UK, once described as follows: “It is a dreadful place. There can be no place more desolate, more despairing, more awful to see in the world.” Perhaps being chosen by Oxford students as the location of a party isn’t so surprising given that practically identical statements have also been made about some of the city’s nightclubs. An almost interesting fact about Rockall is that it was the final territorial expansion of the British Empire when it was claimed in 1955 by putting a plaque on it, which is the technical way of doing these things (we really will take whatever we can won’t we); and it was also the last place in the UK to be invaded, when members of Greenpeace occupied it in protest against oil exploration, creatively renaming it Waveland (if you count that as an invasion; personally I wouldn’t have but Wikipedia does). Members of the Dangerous Sports Club, or, as they were known in Japan, “Extraordinary Freaks of the West”, sailed to Rockall, a journey which took five days, on the way plugging a leak in the boat with a champagne cork. There, they climbed the sheer cliffs of the island to a ledge, had a party, and left, but not before they replaced the all-important plaque with a sign for a disabled toilet.
Perhaps the club’s most spectacular events were the skiing races held in St. Moritz, Switzerland from 1983-85. The rules were fairly simple: there must be an unusual object between you and the skis. As ever with the Dangerous Sports Club, the more extraordinary – or likely to result in your death – the better. Entries (which, I should emphasise, were all manned by at least one person) included: a desert island (complete with palm tree and shark); a coxed rowing eight; a surgical operating table (complete with a side of beef as a fake body and a large volume of industrial blood) piloted by Monty Python member and DSC patron Graham Chapman; a Venetian gondola; a model horse borrowed from The National Theatre; a bath tub; an old fashioned invalid carriage which ended in a particularly impressive crash; a four-poster bed: a polystyrene missile which went off the end of the piste and crashed into a tree; a couple of (small) planes; and a grand piano. Eventually, the races were stopped when resort operators refused to allow a DSC member to steer a London double-decker bus on skis down the slopes. How unreasonable.
The end of the St. Moritz ski races seemed to usher in the end of the Dangerous Sport Club’s heyday, but the history of the Dangerous Sports Club is not without tragedy, which was yet to come. The Oxford Stunt Factory, which was banned from Oxford’s annual freshers’ fair where first year students sign up to societies, was formed in part by some members of the DSC. They visited a reproduction of a medieval trebuchet which had been constructed to fling people more than 30 metres into a netted area, at the cost of £40 per launch. In 2002, Kostadine “Dino” Yankov, a 19 year-old studying biochemistry at Oxford University (Wadham College), was fired from the trebuchet and landed short of the netting. He was airlifted to hospital, where he died later that day. Charges of manslaughter were brought against the two men who built and operated the trebuchet, one of whom was a previous member of the DSC. They were acquitted on grounds of insufficient evidence. David Kirke said of the case that it was “an extraordinary test case, about the right to experiment, at personal risk, versus social responsibility.”
So what of the DSC now? In truth, it was only ever really an informal group of insouciant adventurers. By the mid-80s most of the original members, who were almost entirely private-school-educated, upper-class, white men (its ranks include a Lord and a former Conservative MP), had moved onto the monotony of life that must come with no longer risking losing it. As one of them said, “David [Kirke] used to say that the one thing that united us all was a fear of a regular job. It’s a nice student ideal, but you can’t fucking live like that.” (I have actually received extremely similar comments from friends and family over the last four months.) Other members came and went but the Dangerous Sports Club faded to obscurity and history pages. The contribution of the Dangerous Sports Club to the world of extreme and alternative sports is immeasurable, but perhaps there is even more to its legend. “The true story of the DSC cannot be told until after I am dead,” David Kirke has said. “Right now, it would be too dangerous.”