Monday, May 16, 2011

A "kooky legend"

For men of a certain age, Evel Knievel is a touchstone of innocence lost, vaguely held in the memory bank as an emblem of how easily and simply wonderment once came to a fan-boy of American sports.

In the 1970s, Knievel, the motorcycle daredevil clad in a white jumpsuit, flew over cars and buses and canyons (well, he had issues with the canyons) and became a branded entity on ABC's "Wide World of Sports," on which he would appear 17 times in 10 years, and drew the highest ratings in the show's history (some 55 million viewers) when he jumped over 14 Greyhound buses at the Kings Island Amusement Park near Cincinnati in 1975.

The jump was one of his patented comebacks; earlier that year Knievel attempted to jump 13 single-decker buses at London's Wembley Stadium. He didn't make it (he always seemed to hit that last bus or van or safety ramp) and suffered, among other things, a broken right hand, a compressed fracture of the fourth and fifth vertebrae in the lower part of his spine, and a fractured left pelvis.

"The question always was about how many bones he had broken," Leigh Montville writes in his engrossing new biography, "Evel." "The answers varied — at the end of his career, he would settle on 37 major bones, 14 operations."

There are resonances in revisiting a kooky legend like Knievel, not least of which is that when Knievel was big, televised sport consisted of a choice-less three broadcast networks. Whatever "Wide World" served up each week came with a certain arch, unchecked authority.

Was Knievel, who died at age 69 in 2007, an athlete? "Evel" doesn't debate this (it's unclear whether the daredevil even exercised). But his stunts deserve a place in the pantheon of televised sports as an iconic kind of cinéma vérité that played at the intersection of physical daring and Romanesque voyeurism.

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