High-wire artists perform death-defying feats at Seoul event

The Hankyoreh

Seoul, May 4

Alexey Marchenko, a 32-year-old Russian tightrope walker, inches forward high above the water, as his bandage-clad toes slide gently over a thin wire that swings up and down even with a slight breeze.

Sweat drenches his face, clouding his eyes as he struggles to stay on, aided only by a pole to balance himself. He has never walked this far on a high wire, he thinks to himself, and suddenly, he takes an empty step that sends him splashing into the river 20 meters below.

The crowd shrieks.

"Surprise, surprise," shouted Lim Young-sun, a South Korean spectator. "It's fantastic, but I'm concerned about his safety.

Other competitors waiting for their turn watched impassively. "What happens on the wire, nobody knows," Jade Kindar-Martin, a 34-year-old American high-wire artist, said as he watched his Russian competitor being pulled out of Seoul's landmark Han River.

"It's just the wire and you," said Kindar-Martin who once performed a Guinness World Record-setting double skywalk across the Thames River in London in 1997 with his mentor, Rudy Omankowski, Jr. "Your life is in your hands. Nobody can help you.

You're responsible for your life. It's you. It's real."

Eighteen acrobats from nine countries, including the United States, China and South Korea, are vying more for fame than money in the world's first high-wire walking competition in Seoul. The winner will get a cash prize of 15 million won (US$15,500) and the runner-up 10 million won.

The three-day contest, which opened on Thursday as part of a city-wide festival, tests how fast the competitors can walk along a slim tensioned wire across the Han River. The distance is exactly one kilometer.

Five took part in the first day of the competition, of whom two failed, plunging into the chilly water before being saved by waiting boats. Abudusataer Wujiabudula, a 20-year-old ethnic Uighur man from China, clocked the day's best time of 11 minutes and 22 seconds.

There is no comparable record for the 1-kilometer tightwire walk but in 2003, another ethnic Uighur man, Adili Wuxiuer, 36, covered 662 meters at China's Chungqing cliff.

"Extreme feelings!" the Russian acrobat shouted as he stepped onto the ground after being plucked from the water, all wet but full of smiles at the wild cheers by hundreds of spectators.

"I'm a man, I have to risk my life. In ordinary life, it's dangerous. For some people it is. But it's a true feeling for me," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

High-wire walking is a sport said to be as old as ancient Egypt.

In China, it is believed to have started as the art of "rope dancing" over knives in the early part of its 5,000-year-old history.

Axiguli Maimaitimin, an ethnic Uighur from China who is one of three female entrants in the competition, said she comes from a family that has practiced the sport for over 2,000 years.

"I'm the chosen one," she said, dressed in a colorful ethnic dress. "I've been doing it since I was five."

Danger and even death haunt these men and women who dare to resist gravity on a wire that is only 30 millimeters thick, while using a steel pole that weighs 10 kilograms which helps ease the earth's pull.

In 1978, Karl Wallenda, a German daredevil famous for high-wire stunts without a safety net, attempted a walk between two 10-story towers in Puerto Rico at age 73, but fell to his death when he lost his balance due to strong winds.

"Danger. I like danger," Alan Martinez, a 29-year-old contestant from Colombia, said with an unflinching smile as he watched the first day of competition. "It's intense. Nothing else explains the emotions."

Martinez said his young Japanese wife fell in love with him after watching his high-wire dance during a circus in her native country. They plan to raise their just-born baby as an acrobat, too.

"I'm going to teach Arashi when he's two years old. It's in his blood," Martinez said. "I want him to know being on the wire is more exciting than life itself."

Seoul, May 4 (Yonhap News)