Opinion: What’s in a Name? Rethinking ‘Action Sports’

September 6, 2017

[Editor’s note: Nitro MC Micah Kranz writes a weekly column for the Nitro Circus blog. The opinions he expresses are his own, not that of Nitro Circus or other Nitro Circus employees, even if the rest of us Nitro Writers usually agree with him.] 

What’s in a name? Shakespeare penned, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” With those words, the character Juliet is saying that the essence of a thing is not affected by its title. However, the human mind has an irresistible need to categorize things. The term “action sports” is a perfect example of this, a way to file a group of things nicely beside other socially acceptable activities. But to me, that phrase doesn’t feel accurate (with apologies to Juliet and Bill S.).

What’s the origin for “action sports” as a collective term for what we do? In 1995, ESPN created the Extreme Games by lumping several already-active contest series into one made-for-TV spectacle that featured sky surfing next to freestyle bungee jumping and, later, modified snow shovel racing next to speed ice climbing. “Extreme sports” is what they called it, and passionate insiders grudgingly hopped on board despite not buying into the broad categorization. Perhaps the biggest slap in the face was seeing the same term — “extreme” — used to describe tacos. Almost immediately, ESPN changed it to “action sports,” and the name of the competition to X Games, and gravitated toward more mainstream events, though you can still get a medal for playing video games.

Kurtis Downs - Nitro Circus

During this naming spree, the term “BMX” became the blanket narrative for tricks on 20-inch-wheeled bicycles. Before this, BMX was considered bicycle racing on dirt tracks, and freestyle BMX described trick riding. “BMX” is short for “bicycle motocross,” which suggests it’s referring to racing. Again, the powers in place at the time decided this, and now we’re stuck explaining to people that BMX doesn’t mean racing. Combine all that under the umbrella “action sports,” and what we have is many layers of words that don’t do a great job of describing the thing they’re meant to describe.

The conversation about categorizing athletic endeavors is much larger than action sports — it reaches to sport in general. Take baseball. For over a hundred years there has been controversy about whether baseball should even be considered a sport. Some (a small but vocal group) qualify it as a skills game, because there is roughly 17 minutes of action during a three-hour timeframe. Some have referred to it as “the filibuster of the athletic world.” I read an essay that said, “Cheerleading is more of a sport than baseball, because you can’t chew tobacco and form a human pyramid at the same time.” I’ll let you form your own opinion on that one.


A sport by definition has to have some sort of competition associated with it. Most sports feature team versus team with a set of strict rules. The second use of the term “sport” refers to someone who behaves in a positive way to being harassed or teased. Some of us can’t even hear the word “sport” without some dark undertone of hazing and agitation. Sure, there are competitions in our world, but those exhibitions are the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of riding is not done in competition or even in preparation for competition. It’s done for the love of being on a bike. The only “other team” at the skatepark is the one inside your head. Meaning, the only person you are against is yourself. Therefore, the only opponent is fear. And conquering that anxiety becomes the obsession.

To me, what we collectively call action sports are closer aligned to artistic expression than to any actual sport. And I’m not alone. In Europe there have been art installations in some of the most historic museums where they build mini ramps and have flatland BMX displays. It’s nearly impossible to definitively declare a “winner” in a creative endeavor. The problem with trying to judge a creative work is that the evaluator cannot be truly subjective. There are tons of outside influences that could cause a judge to score one rider over another. And let’s not forget one of the best parts about action sports: There are no rules. Maybe BMX defies categorization. Or maybe BMX is whatever you feel like you want it to be.

Jed Mildon - Nitro Circus

Bottom line: Trust the art, not the artist or the art salesman. When you see or experience something, you should judge it by your feelings or mindset and not by what the owner of it has to say. Maybe you feel BMX truly should be categorized as a sport. To that, I say maybe the biggest issue I have with the phrase “action sport” is that it doesn’t capture how gnarly BMX actually is. I can’t compare Jed Mildon’s quadruple backflip to someone catching a fly ball, scoring a touchdown, or shooting a ball through a hoop. Maybe we can just go back to the term “freestyle BMX.” And in the end, it probably doesn’t matter much as long as we don’t get grouped with barefoot water ski jumping.