Just about any sport can be dangerous.
You could drop a bowling ball on your foot.
You could get hit by a golf ball while strolling down the fairway.
But there are also sports that are dangerous by their very nature. If you want to play, the price is accepting that there’s a pretty good chance you'll get hurt...or injured...or even killed.
Then, there’s the most dangerous sport of them all - a sport that required participants to risk everything, every time.
The 20 Most Dangerous Sports on the Planet
Before I reveal which sport is by far the most treacherous, I first want to tackle some other worthy competitors - 19 to be exact.
So, if you’re wondering where your favorite activity falls on this list or you’re just an adrenaline-junkie who needs a new pastime, here are the 20 most dangerous sports in the world.
20. Field Hockey
Officially, field hockey is not a contact sport.
However, players are injured all the time by contact with another player, the stick, or the ball itself.
While players do wear eye gear and mouth guards, the sport remains one of the most likely to result in injury.
Despite the aforementioned eye and mouth protection, it’s insufficient for preventing all facial injuries, including broken teeth and concussions.
Almost 90% of all head and face injuries stem from players being hit by a field hockey stick or ball - ouch!
And with all the running and incidental contact, the sport wreaks havoc on players’ leg muscles, knees, and lower back. In fact, more than 15% of the sport’s injuries are ankle sprains.
Cheerleaders are the butt of many jokes questioning the athleticism of its participants.
But don’t be fooled by their cheery attitude and smiles.
In girls’ high school athletics, cheerleading accidents account for almost two thirds of all catastrophic injuries.
Some cheerleaders are tossed 30 feet in the air. If their teammate isn’t able to catch them, they’re not wearing any protective gear to help them with the fall.
Granted, some perform stunts on padded mats, but statistically, there are more head injuries caused by high school cheerleading than high school football. With all the stunts, cheerleaders might have leg injuries and sprained ankles, too.
Cheerleading is a lot more than shiny pom poms and fun cheers. Sometimes, it’s a trip to the ER.
18. Skiing and Snowboarding
Both skiing and snowboarding require a large degree of athleticism and finesse to master the right techniques for making it down the mountain in one piece.
Regardless of skill, the risk of injury as athletes careen downhill is very, very real.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins estimate that close to 600,000 people injure themselves skiing and snowboarding every single year in this country alone.
One out of every five of these injuries involves the head, usually because a skier or snowboarder runs into a tree or takes a spill to the ground.
Of those people, 22% lost consciousness or were concussed - often because they weren’t wearing a helmet.
Furthermore, one out of every three injuries is related to knees. One bad wipe-out, a wrong turn, or even a hard impact with a tree or stone can put tremendous strain on them.
Skiers and snowboarders can also find themselves taking a trip to an orthopedic surgeon due to knee sprains, ligament tears, and dislocations.
So, while skiing and snowboarding is a sport enjoyed all over the world by both the young and the old, it can also be very dangerous.
17. Big Wave Surfing
The ocean is already a scary place, teeming with natural predators, craggy rocks, and killer tides.
And yet, for many, surfing is a siren song that draws them to the ocean every single day.
Then, there’s the breed of surfer whose thirst for adrenaline can’t be quenched by the typical wave. Instead, they dream of the kinds of waves that would give the rest of us nightmares.
Overall, big wave surfing is not all that deadly. Over the past 10 years, only 4 big wave surfers have died. That’s still a big number (and no less a tragedy), but it’s not as ominous as some of the other sports on this list.
Nonetheless, if you’re knocked off your board after riding a big wave, you could be knocked unconscious. Even if you remain conscious, you usually have fewer than 20 seconds to return to the surface before another big wave pushes you down father.
This sport definitely isn’t for the faint of heart.
16. Cliff Diving
Cliff diving is exactly what its name suggests.
It’s an extreme sport that involves diving into water from a high, rocky cliff - making it very similar to BASE jumping (which also makes the list).
Divers can travel in excess of 60-70 miles per hour when they hit the water, so injuries are definitely possible.
The most common are abrasions, bruises, compression fractures, concussions, and, much more severe, spinal damage.
It’s not advisable to pick up this sport without some training.
Participants must consider the weather conditions, the waves below, and the potential terrain. Knowledge of wind patterns is vital for landing safety.
Modern cliff divers continue to push the training preparation envelope.
The typical distance is 85-92 feet. For comparison, Olympic divers jump from a maximum height of 33 feet.
In 2015, Brazilian-Swiss athlete Laso Schallo dove more than 193 feet.
It takes a lot of preparation for a few seconds of pure adrenaline, but thousands of people take the plunge each year.
15. Scuba Diving
Scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving is a pretty intense and demanding activity that requires special skill and equipment.
Most people go through extensive training to scuba dive, but participants can still find themselves in danger for a variety of reasons.
For one, if you’re diving in the open seas, an obvious threat is the untamed wilderness (i.e. big, huge, hungry sharks). Vigilance is key.
Beyond that, you could find yourself with defective equipment, like a broken depth gauge (which could lead to a mild case of decompression sickness) or a faulty regulator (which could result in drowning).
Additionally, decompression sickness (DCS) is a common ailment scuba divers experience. Nicknamed “the bends,” DCS occurs when a diver breathes compressed air at lower depth and their body tissues absorb extra nitrogen. Upon resurfacing, if too much nitrogen has been absorbed into the lungs, the pressure reduction causes nitrogen bubbles in the tissue.
While DCS is extremely painful, it can also result in potentially fatal nerve and tissue damage.
Buzkashi, which translates to “goat pulling,” is a traditional Central Asian game played on horse or yak back. Some say Buzkashi started in the Afghan region when tribes attempted to steal a rival tribe’s goat.
Whatever the case, there is zero chance a sport called “goat pulling” is going to be remotely safe.
Nonetheless, Buzkashi has survived for more than 1,000 years and is even Afghanistan’s national sport.
Played on an open field, the goal of the game is pretty simple: players vie for control of a pretty unconventional “ball” - usually a goat or cow head - and toss it into a basket or goal.
As you’ll do.
No weapons are involved in Buzkashi, but participants do use whips not only to push along their horses but also to beat their opponents.
Players can also pull hair and grab competitors off their horses, resulting in bruises, fractures, and yes, even death. Though fatalities are rare, the potential for falling off the horse is high and the result is incredibly painful.
Japanese for “pole toppling” or “pole bring-down,” Bo-Taoshi is similar to Capture the Flag - only a lot more dangerous.
Many believe the sport began in 1945 as a way for the Japanese militia to prepare men for battle. Accordingly, new cadets battle it out in this game during their induction ceremony. In fact, it’s so popular in Japan that even kids and teenagers play it on special sports days and holidays.
A typical match has 300 players.
You read that right: 300.
It’s 150 crazy players vs. another 150 absolutely insane players.
Each team splits into half to make up the offensive and defensive units, with the defense wearing white and the offense wearing a bright color.
The defensive players position themselves around a pole (which can range from 10-16ft high), and at the firing of a gun, the opposing team throws themselves (quite literally) at the other team to take down the pole.
Both teams can attack and defend at the same time. Whoever can take the other team’s pole down first wins.
As teams scrum to topple the poles, there is a lot of face-kicking and limb flailing.
The sport has grown in popularity and has even made its way to America. In 2012, a Bo-Taoshi league popped up in Richmond, Virginia.
So, if your two favorite activities are climbing poles and beating people up, consider relocating to Richmond.
12. Calcio Storico
As challenging as it may look, pronouncing it might be the easiest thing about this sport.
Dating back to 1580, Calcio Storico has a rich tradition. On June 24th each year, the people of Florence, Italy flock to the main-square-turned-arena to view a sport that is a brutal combination of rugby, football, and wrestling.
Essentially, 2 teams of 27 players compete for 50 minutes (no substitutes are allowed, so if you get injured, you have to just suck it up).
A ball is thrown into the middle of the 80x40 meter arena. The goal is to get the ball into your opponent’s net, which spans the length of their 40-meter side. You can pick it up and run with it, kick it, or pass it to other players.
Of course, all the while, the other team is basically trying to murder you.
The only rules where violence is concerned are that players cannot sucker punch, kick someone in the head, or gang tackle an opponent.
So, that’s nice.
Unfortunately, there’s still a long - and absolutely brutal - list of things participants can do. This includes using their hands and feet to:
A whole host of martial arts moves are considered completely above board, too.
Even though there have been no reported deaths in modern times, a number of players have been hospitalized for months after participating in Calcio Storico.
11. Bull Riding
Grabbing life by the horns is usually easier said than done.
But it’s still probably a lot easier - and safer - than taking hold of an actual bull and trying to ride it.
Ask any cowboy or girl and they’ll tell you that bull riding is absolutely one of the most dangerous things you can possibly do.
The rules are simple (and utterly terrifying).
The rider must stay on the bull for at least eight seconds but can only use one hand in the process - no switching up, either.
Sitting atop a 2,000-pound angry, unpredictable bull might provide some temporary thrill (if, you know, you’re insane), but there’s always the lingering chance of being bucked off and breaking a bone.
Butterwick defines catastrophic as a player having died or having his or her life altered in some significant way.
It’s a big risk for 8 seconds. But it’s one that over 1,000 professional bull riders are willing to take.
10. Street Luging
Street luging involves participants lying on a wheeled board, called a “sled”, and riding down a particularly stepe paved road or course.
The sport was actually invented by skateboarders who were looking for ways to travel faster on their boards, they discovered that lying on them instead of standing would propel them at much greater speeds.
How much greater?
As Victor Mather once put it in The New York Times, street luging is like “sledding at 90 miles per hour.”
But the world record for an unassisted street luge is 101mph, set by Damian Andrew in 2017.
What could go wrong?
Despite the fast speeds, riders must follow safety precautions to compete, like wearing full leather outfits and motorcycle helmets. Deaths are quite rare, but injuries aren’t and can be severe.
Lugers literally risk their necks for a quick rush of adrenaline downhill. Being so close to the road means a better chance of direct contact with the paved course.
Ranging from half a mile to three miles, courses usually include plenty of sharp turns, which can create limited visibility for what lies ahead.
Oh and did I forget to mention that luges don’t come with brakes?
If a luger decides they’re no longer enjoying racing at a literal breakneck pace down a windy road, they have two options:
- They can drag their feet on the ground to slow themselves down and eventually stop
- They can run into something
9. NASCAR and Motocross
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), which began in the 1940s, is a spectacle that millions of people tune in to watch each year.
Drivers surpass 180 miles per hour, so it’s not surprising that some have been injured (and, sadly, killed) in crashes.
Over the last 20 years, NASCAR has taken measures to improve the safety of its drivers. For example, they’ve mandated “kill switch” so engines can be turned off remotely should the driver be unable to shut it off themselves. Another example is the flame-retardant suits drivers must wear.
But even with these types of safety measures in place, drivers are still at risk. Though it’s far from a fiery crash, drivers may suffer from blood clots just from sitting for so long or from fume inhalation.
Motocross is a similar sport in that it involves racing other participants with the help of souped up engines and a borderline-insane amount of courage.
While motocross competitors don’t go as fast as their NASCAR compatriots, they also have a lot less between themselves and the track in the case of a crash. This is why motocross is one of the most dangerous sports in the world. One wrong move could easily be your last.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a competition between two highly skilled fighters who are allowed to use striking and grappling to either knock their opponents unconscious or force them to “tap out” (essentially say, “I quit”).
So, yeah. No surprise here. It’s one of the most dangerous sports on the planet.
One out of every three MMA fights ends in a knockout, making the likelihood for brain trauma higher than that of boxing or other martial arts.
Even if a competitor isn’t injured in a match, the training sessions alone can be excruciating (and dangerous). Athletes can tear muscles, fracture ribs, break bones, and even injure their heads or skulls.
Because of the repeated blows to the arms, neck, and head, the most frequent injuries are lacerations, concussions, and contusions.
So, while professional organizations like the UFC have gone to great lengths to distance MMA from the moniker “bloodsport”, it remains an apt description.
7. Jai Alai
Imagine the game squash, but it’s on steroids and in need of anger management.
That’s Jai Alai (pronounced “Hi-Lie”).
Also called “Cesta Punta,” the sport originated in Spain and areas of France back in the 1700s.
Teams of two players take turns hurling a ball made from goat-skin, rubber, and metal against a giant wall in front of them using a scoop-like device, which helps to accelerate the ball faster than any human could actually throw.
The record is about 190 MPH.
So, the walls in Jai Alai must be made of solid granite or they’d quickly fall apart.
What makes this sport so dangerous is that in order for a player to generate this kind of speed, they need to start with their back to the wall they’ll be throwing against - giving them no clear sight of who’s in their way.
While you’d think other participants would either steer clear of the person throwing or at least keep an eye on them, the spirit of competition often takes over. Many even look to the wall before the ball is let loose hoping to get a jump on where they’ll need to be to catch it.
Unfortunately, this is how many of them end up taking one of these very hard balls right to the head.
As a result, at least four people have died playing the sport. An article on Jai Alai in the New York Times did a great job of summing up just how dangerous it is when describing player salaries:
“Annual salaries for jai alai players range from $35,000 to $50,000, provided a player does not sustain an injury, which happens frequently.” (emphasis mine)
So, basically, when calculating take-home-pay as a Jai Alai player, you need to consider the very real possibility that you’ll be hurt so badly that it will affect how much you’re able to make.
Arguably America’s pastime before baseball, boxing has been a staple of athletic competition throughout the world for hundreds of years.
It’s also always been extremely dangerous.
So dangerous, in fact, that, on average, 13 boxers die in the ring every single year.
Reforms such The Mohammed Ali Boxing Reform Act have been implemented to protect boxers, but injuries - including very serious ones - are still common.
The main injury is trauma to the head and eyes. The force of a professional boxer’s punch is the same as a 13-pound bowling ball travelling 20mph.
Such hard hits result in cuts, bruises, broken ribs, internal bleeding, broken teeth, and even damage to internal organs. Some boxers have even suffered retinal detachment and hemorrhaging.
More serious consequences include chronic brain injuries that result in speech difficulty, stiffness, and memory loss.
A knockout punch - the spectacle every fan is paying to see - is one of the most dangerous injuries in all of sports. It doesn’t just hurt in the moment. It doesn’t just stick around the next day. The damage it causes can stay with a boxer for the rest of their lives.
We’ve all seen the images: A matador donned in his elegant costume waving a giant red flag, luring in an angry, determined bull that’s digging his feet into the dirt before charging right at the challenger.
Rooted in the ancient Roman Empire’s gladiator games, the modern version of Spanish bullfighting remains a dangerous sport to this day.
No shock there.
Gladiators weren’t exactly known for safety.
Since 1700, about 530 bullfighters have been killed in the ring.
Aside from the obvious worst-case scenario - a bull running right through you - this ancient sport carries a number of other risks. An errant horn could take out an eye. Something as simple as a scratch or scrape could lead to a debilitating - or even fatal - infection.
Nowadays, medical professionals are on hand to treat all of the common bullfighter injuries, from those that fall under “that looks like it hurt” to the equally common “holy $%&#! I think he’s dead!”
Still, while this has helped rein in the brutal sport’s mortality rate, you should probably keep looking for a new activity if you’re even remotely fond of breathing.
Just four years ago, two bullfighters died in the ring, proving that for all its modernizing, bullfighting is still very, very dangerous.
Garry Marvin, a professor of human-animal studies, goes as far to say that “if a normal person got into the ring with a fighting bull, they'd be severely gored or dead within a few minutes.”
Imagine holding your breath for almost three full minutes as you plunge deeper and deeper into water.
That’s freediving and many participants can actually go much deeper - with just a single breath.
The current record for a continuous weight dive (with fins) is 420 feet for men and 331 feet for women. For perspective, a standard American football field is 360 feet.
Fortunately, there has only been one recorded death in competitive freediving. That’s mainly because competitions are only open to experienced participants, have rules and regulations set in place, and include the presence of medical doctors.
However, plenty of people go free diving without these sorts of safety measures in place. According to an article on free diving by ABC News, “There are about 5,000 free divers around the world, and an estimated 100 die each year.” (emphasis mine)
That same article started by reporting on a champion free diver who died attempting to descend 561 feet, proving how dangerous the sport can be even for those with the most experience.
3. BASE Jumping
Nothing about falling from the sky is going to be especially safe.
And yet, BASE jumpers have found a way to make it about a million times more dangerous.
These extreme athletes take great joy in jumping from fixed objects (Buildings, Antennae, Satellites, or Earth) that are usually only about 480 feet off the ground. Compare that to at least 5,000 feet when you skydive.
The distance is often so small that BASE jumpers will simply hold a deployed parachute in their hands and then let it go shortly after they jump. Waiting for it to deploy after pulling a chord could take too long.
Between 2007 and 2017, 223 people have died BASE jumping.
More than 30 BASE jumpers died in 2016 alone, making it the sport’s deadliest year thus far.
One study found that there is 1 fatality for every 2,317 BASE jumps. That puts your chances of dying at about 0.04% if you decide to take the (literal) leap.
Adventurists who take to the mountains find themselves experiencing both the rush of adrenaline and the high risk of injuries or death.
In fact, since the first climbing attempt on Mt. Everest in 1922, there have been close to 300 recorded deaths on that mountain alone.
The biggest hurdle is an inability to control one’s environment. Severe weather conditions can be an absolutely insurmountable obstacle for an exposed mountaineer on the side of a giant mountain.
The weather can rapidly change from calm, sunny, and warm to windy, rainy, and snowy, making it difficult for even the most prepared mountaineers to adjust. Frostbite is also a very serious threat.
Furthermore, mountaineers risk encountering a slew of falling objects, like massive icicles, rocks, and avalanches. Mountaineers must be vigilant and focus on their surroundings - in front, above, and below them - to avoid these fatal hazards.
Along the way, mountaineers may also encounter crevasses, or deep cracks in ice sheets and glaciers. Usually hidden by snow, falling into one of these crevasses can be deadly.
And as mountaineers ascend, they may experience altitude sickness or, worse, exposure to UV radiation because the atmosphere gets thinner at higher altitudes.
All of these reasons were enough for Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University (who is recognized as the leading expert on risk in the United Kingdom) to consider mountaineering the most dangerous sport in the world. His assessment was that mountaineering comes with a 1% chance of death per climb.
1. Mountain Climbing (Free Soloing)
But I’m still going to nominate a different sport - albeit a similar one - as the most dangerous on the planet.
Even with all the ropes, hooks, and other special equipment participants depend on, traditional mountain climbing is extremely dangerous.
According to the 2017 Accidents in North American Climbing report, 2016 saw 38 climbing-related fatalities in North America. This was a bit high, but the average still tends to hover around 30.
And yet, there’s actually a more dangerous version of the sport, which is the one that I’m putting at the top of this list.
This take on mountain climbing lacks any sort of safety equipment whatsoever.
It’s called free soloing and my heart is pounding just thinking about it.
In free soloing, nutjobs athletes climb mountains without any ropes, harnesses, or anything else that could be remotely construed as a safety device.
All they use is their strength, flexibility, focus, and courage (my palms are literally sweating as I think about this).
In 2017, Alex Honnold attempted the near impossible free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park...without a rope.
That’s over 3,000 feet worth of chances to plummet to the ground. Put another way, El Capitan is more than three times as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Between 2013 and 2018, five free-solo climbers died attempting the same thing.
Here’s a photo of him falling off the side of a mountain (with a rope and harness this time, thank God), so it’s not as though he simply never loses his grip.
If you’re in the mood to skyrocket your anxiety, I highly recommend the documentary that followed his incredible story, Free Solo.
As you can imagine, the free-solo climbing club is a pretty exclusive one. There aren’t many climbers who have the experience to attempt these feats, much less the courage required to actually try.
And yet, in the past 10 years, 6 free-solo climbers have died attempting to scale a mountain without safety gear.
In my opinion, it is without-a-doubt the most dangerous sport in the world.
Did I Miss Any Dangerous Sports?
Not impressed by my list of dangerous sports?
Think I missed one?
Think one should’ve been higher?
Feel free to let me know below in the comment section below. If enough people agree, I’ll update this list.
For now, I’m going for a nice safe jog on completely flat ground in broad daylight...with a helmet.