An unidentified diver jumps from a 26 meter high cliff in Brontallo (Val Maggia), Switzerland during the 1998 Cliff Diving World Championships.

Although it may seem hard to believe, cliff diving is more than just an adrenaline rush for thrill seekers; it is a widely respected adventure sport with historical roots and extremely intense competitors.

Cliff diving originated during the 1700s in Hawaii. King Kahekili, who was one of the last independent kings in Hawaii, used cliff diving as an initiation tactic for his warriors. He required them to follow his example by jumping off of cliffs in an effort to prove their loyalty. As time progressed, King Kahekili’s cliff diving stunts shifted focus. It was no longer just a loyalty test for Hawaiian warriors, but instead became so popular that people began to practice cliff diving in competition with one another. While the original contests were somewhat primitive, they eventually evolved into sophisticated competitions with world-wide recognition under the World High Diving Federation (WHDF).

The WHDF was founded in 1996 in Switzerland. It is a highly respected, independent organization that is recognized by the Swiss Olympic Committee. It is often referenced as the main authority on cliff diving because, since its inception, it has been responsible for putting the sport of cliff diving back on the map. Aside from organizing some of the most famous cliff diving competitions in the world, the WHDF outlined a highly sophisticated set of guidelines for judging the performances and degrees of difficulty for cliff divers.

The first criterion is the takeoff. Different takeoff positions have different point values. For example, a forward takeoff position might not be as impressive as a reverse takeoff or an armstand takeoff. The second criterion is somersaults. Somersaults are judged by the number of rotations. For example, a half somersault does not have as high of a point value as a triple somersault. The third criterion is twists. Twists are judged similarly to somersaults in that they are given point values based on the number of rotations. The fourth criterion is positions in the air. Positions in the air can vary greatly, so the point values are ranked in accordance with the degree of difficulty associated with each position. For example, a forward position will have a lesser point value than an armstand reverse position. The fifth and final criterion is the entry into the water. How a diver enters the water greatly affects the score of the dive. For example, if a dive is executed wonderfully in the air but the diver botches the water entry with a big splash or an unannounced rotation, the judges will definitely deduct points from the final score.

Even though the act of cliff diving may seem completely reckless and not well thought out, when it comes to WHDF competitions, the dives are anything but spontaneous. Each dive is carefully planned and documented by the diver before the competition begins.

This rule is enforced not only for the safety of the divers but also for the authenticity of the scores. Five judges observe each dive and award scores independently according to degree of difficulty as planned by the diver. The scores are more accurate this way because the judges know what criteria to look for in each dive before the diver even attempts it.

Overall, cliff diving competitions are extremely organized and they showcase some of the most athletic and acrobatic athletes in the world. There is always an element of danger, but the diving shows are truly amazing.