Pushing the envelope is one thing. Pushing a spit-shined snow
shovel down a hill and calling it a sport proved to be another.
"We live and learn," says ESPN's Chris Stiepock of the decision
to drop supermodified shovel racing from the Winter X Games
rotation after its absurd 1997 debut.
This is an article from the Jan. 19, 2004 issue
Stiepock, the general manager of the games, deserves some credit.
As those snow shovels attest, he and his colleagues have not been
afraid to take chances. Their willingness to listen to their
athletes, tweak formats and generally adopt and discard sports
the way Britney Spears goes through men (where have you gone, ice
climbing and snow mountain bike racing?) has kept these games as
fresh as they were seven years ago. That's when Winter X debuted
in Big Bear Lake, Calif.--two years after the first Summer X
Games--and competitors in a snowboarding event called boarder
cross were forced to jump a large pool of what appeared to be
"It was Mountain Dew," recalls Ross Powers, who went on to win a
gold medal in the halfpipe at the Salt Lake City Olympics two
years ago. "They put a pool of it between two jumps. We called it
the Mountain Dew Gap."
Soft drink lagoons have gone the way of snow shovels at the
Winter X, but the Games slide along, stronger than ever. The
eighth edition will be held Jan. 24-27 at Buttermilk Mountain in
Aspen, Colo. In addition to introducing the customary handful of
new events--this year it's women's ski superpipe and women's
snowmobile freestyle--the network's Bristol-based braintrust has
given Winter X a nice bump in stature. While previous games have
been televised on a tape-delayed basis ("plausibly live" as they
say in the biz) ESPN will air live coverage of the goings-on at
Buttermilk for two jargon-packed hours each evening. That means
fewer fluffy features, more "gravity checks" (that's motocross
parlance for wipeouts).
To what do we owe the upgrade? First, says Ron Semiao, ESPN
senior vice president of original programming, "the athletes
deserve it--they're the best in the world at what they do." It
was Semiao who conceived of the original X (ne Extreme) Games in
1995. While they've long been pleased by the popularity of the X
Games with their key demographic (teenage boys), the network's
execs have longed to broaden their appeal. "The core fan is going
to watch regardless," says Semiao. "We need to reach the more
casual sports fan."
So they'll be going live in prime time, which means the
highlights from each day will be replayed on SportsCenter,
raising the profile of these disciplines higher than it's been
since Salt Lake City and also raising the possibility of a
Barrett Christy-induced "Boo-yah!" from Stuart Scott, should that
halfpipe artist stick one of her patented Barrett Rolls.
Thank goodness for the X Games, because outside of this event,
the action-sports scene has been looking a bit grim. While it
puts on a brave face, the Vans Triple Crown of Snowboarding has
been hemorrhaging money for years, insiders say. Fox Sports Net's
often excruciating action-sports show, 54321, was canceled at the
end of the year, counted out after less than a season on the air.
The Gravity Games, a respected, lower-wattage version of the X
Games, have been sucking wind.
The vitality of the X Games has also been a boon to athletes'
pocketbooks. Prize money won at Winter X Games is often matched
by sponsors grateful for the unmatched exposure. For
snowboarders, the X Games and the Burton-sponsored U.S. Open are
their biggest events outside the Olympics.
In their continuing quest to "adapt to the constantly changing
wishes and needs of young people," as IOC president Jacques Rogge
put it in 2002, the Winter Olympic Games have begun to resemble,
ever more closely, the Winter X Games. It's very much a one-way
street. "We are not looking to add curling at this time," Semiao
Boarder cross will make its Olympic debut in Turin in 2006. This
sport--think of roller derby going down a mountain--has long been
a staple of the X Games. "We were the only event that's sustained
it," says Stiepock. With the Olympics glomming on, he says,
"it'll be interesting to see how much attention it gets."
It'll be interesting to see if Olympic organizers send the racers
over large pools of soda.
The next SI Adventure will appear in the February 23 issue.