Slaughterhouse Live - Ski Mag

Slaughterhouse Live

Features
Author:
Publish date:
SG1299Xc.jpg

On January 14, 1999, the future came buzzing into Crested Butte with the subtlety of a cluster bomb, arriving with a nonstop blare of hip-hop, a rage of adolescent hormones, and a brash flaunting of some of the sickest aerobatic trickery ever seen on snow. The future was the X Games, or at least it was if you listened to the apostles of this thing called alternative winter sport¿the athletes and organizers and market-savvy pitchmen representing Taco Bell and Mountain Dew and Volkswagen and even (get this!) the U.S. Marines.

Ski racing was deader than disco, they said, and conformity had cost freestyle its soul. But the X Games were a balls-to-the-wall, whacked-out rodeo on snow, unafraid of smashing molds, exulting in showing off, putting the rocket back in the pocket of the wheezing geezer of winter sport. If you were a believer, the X Games were the future, and the future was now.

And maybe it was, if the future was about pushing the envelope of gymnastic possibility. The big-air aeronauts on skis, skiboards, and snowboards were doing just that¿rocketing skyward and raising the bar for winter athleticism in the process. These guys were good; as Jonny Moseley put it, "There are no yahoos out there." And if the future was about the gladiatorial spectacle of in-your-face competition, then skiercross, boardercross, and snocross (on snowmobiles) were shaming into antiquity such staid, cerebral stuff as racing against the clock.

But there was, too, the inescapable presence of the mighty dollar. The sponsorship stuff, the product spin-offs, the trumped-up lifestyle statements, the TV tie-ins¿all were driving the X Games, somewhat uncomfortably, toward that volatile junction where athletics and marketing become one.

Which meant that if you were a true master of future sport, you came to the X games both as competitor and entrepreneur. Adam Hostetter, a snowboarder who'd competed in the Olympics, saw that writing on the wall. He showed up in an oversized mobile home he called the Storm Trooper, a palatial presence in the parking lot, splashed with sponsor logos, generating its own promotional force field. He might have come to the X Games to compete in boardercross (a.k.a. boarder X), but that seemed almost beside the point. Hostetter was on a networking mission, wooing sponsors and media, trying to carve out a niche as a winter-sport personality.

Still, Hostetter was sucking the exhaust of Shaun Palmer, the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Alternative Sport Athlete and de facto World's Most Aggressively Sneering Self Promoter. In the art of drawing attention to oneself, no one could out-Palm the Palm. If the X Games were to be a major crossover statement in winter sports¿the missing link connecting skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling¿the Palm saw himself as the icon residing at the nexus.

But if the Palm knew where he fit in, plenty of others didn't seem so sure. Hordes of shuffling, teenage snowboarders and skiboarders swarmed about the X Games' carnival land of halfpipes, berms, tabletops, and kickers¿a head-scratching cloud of humanity. What's my number? Where do I sign in? Where am I staying? What's going on here?

Actually, the bottom line was something any Gen Next tube-aholic with a remote-control clicker could figure out. The future was in ratings. As a concoction of ESPN, the X Games were the future as long as viewers kept viewing and sponsors kept sponsoring. If too many viewers changed the channel, and if X Games sponsors subsequently jumped ship, the future would be dead in the water.

Jonny Moseley certainly knows what TV can do for a guy. A two-second shard of televised history¿the famous 360 mute grab that won Olympic gold¿made Moseley an international poster boy for in-your-face athletic exhibitionism. Moseley was now romping around the alternative-sports landscape more or less on sabbatical from World Cup freestyle competition. This was his post-Olymp fun tour¿Superstars, X Games, Bumps & Jumps, stuff like that.

Unfortunately, the fun tour had just taken a nasty turn. "I've got a knot on my back that looks like this," he said, holding up a fist. He'd crashed hard in performing what he called a "dinner roll" on his way to finishing second in the big-air competition. He'd endured a sleepless, Percodan-confused night and was now walking like an arthritic grandparent. He'd already declared his allegiance to the alt-sports revolution¿heck, he'd even organized his own alt-sports carnival, the Jonny Moseley Invitational in Steamboat Springs¿but right now he was feeling a little cranky about the whole business: "Sometimes it's like they don't care, as long as it's exciting for TV." He reached for his back and grimaced.

Pain was a big, big theme in the X Games, and there are a couple of reasons why. For one thing, it was all still a work in progress. Safety standards were in the development stages. The big-air hill, for example, still needed some fine-tuning¿the freeride calculus of forward momentum, upward lift, and gravitational pull had yet to be satisfactorily reckoned. That's one reason why Moseley blottoed his back, skidding into a nest of ice chunks he'd never have encountered on a World Cup freestyle hill.

The course for the skiercross (a.k.a. skier X) involved even more guesswork. This year's course was supposed to be a pure skiercross course, not a boardercross hand-me-down as in years past, with berms and tabletops improperly spaced for the higher speeds of skiing. In theory it was perfect; in fact it proved almost grotesquely brutal.

During practice, in the days before the competition even began, three competitors ended up in the hospital, two with broken heels. When the competition started, things got worse. After taking a knee to the jaw, a bloodied Noel Lyons arrived in the finish area spitting out pieces of teeth. Kent Kreitler blew out a knee. So did Dave Swanwick. Alison Gannett wrecked both of hers. The 1998 winner, Denis Rey, was knocked cold in an on-course collision.

Yet it all made for good TV¿a second reason why pain is such a big X Games subtext. Carnage sells, and even the competitors seemed willing to accept it. As Swanwick put it, X Games carnage "appeals to a basic instinct of humanity¿an ambulance-chasing mentality." Carnage works for ESPN because it speaks a universal language. It speaks to a world beyond winter-sports fans, to warm-weather viewers¿say, football-crazed wahoos in Alabama who don't know a skiboard from a boomerang¿because any crash in any sport is a crash worth watching.

It also works for ESPN because the X Games can afford a few injuries. This isn't a show in which ratings depend on the name-recognition value of its athletes. Moseley and perhaps the World's Greatest Alternative Sports Athlete aside, there are few marquee-name, big-money stars who need to be protected. What you see, not who you see¿the spectacle, not the performer¿is at the heart of the X Games' appeal.

The party flowed hard and fast, amping up steadily with an aura of radioactive hip-hop cool. Raked-back shades, knit caps, oversized pants; snowboarders, skiers, skiboarders, ESPN production types, party crashers, freeloaders¿a mosh world of sweat and flesh. In one corner arose the loud, unmistakable laugh of Glen Plake, skiing's pre-X bad boy. Only a month earlier, Plake had been dissing X, but now he'd seen the light; in look, athleticism, and general outrageousness, he was the X Games' true cross-generational soul brother. He had joined the extended X Games family as a public-address announcer.

Everyone was there, then: Gen-X, Gen Next, Plake, the Palm¿a great communion of alt-sport talents, wannabes, and hangers-on. As a theoretical ideal, this was what the X Games were supposed to be about: a kind of latter-day Woodstock (the original, that is), a melting pot bonding winter-sport athletes together in a union of shared experience. Here was a chance for skiers, snowboarders, skiboarders, even snowmobilers to put away petty rivalries and come together in an orgy of mutual interest and respect; to smoke, in a spirit of cross-cultural camaraderie, from some metaphorical bong. Peace, brother.

Not a chance. If anything, the X Games reaccentuated the caste divisions of winter. In the lobby of the Marriott, snowboarders swarmed lazily on the floor, an interlocking ooze of Gore-Tex¿encased flesh. They were their own, inseparable entity. So, too, were the snowmobilers, who dressed as if they were from places like Fargo, North Dakota, marching around in their explosively colorful NASCAR-style jackets. They were, in fact, from places like Fargo, North Dakota. While others smoked pot, the snowmobilers just plain smoked. The skiers represented a kind of middle ground, more adult and less pierced than the snowboarders, but nowhere near as beef-stew all-American as the snowmobilers.

Sometimes the caste differences were etched with defiance. After winning the skiboarding triple air, Chris Hawks was asked to address the youth of America. He curled his lip in a comically purposeful sneer. "I want people either to ski or to skiboard," Hawks said, "but not snowboard. And you can quote me on that." Yet there was Jonny Moseley, calling skiboarding "just another division. Skiboarding is lame." The divisions went even deeper, separating freeskiers from freestylers from racers, and here was Moseley's turn to take a hit. "Jonny Moseley is going to do skiercross and he's gonna get killed," said Jeremy Nobis, former racer and now freeskier. "He doesn't have the skills." (Moseley in fact bowed out of skiercross because of his big-air injury.) Rob Boyd, assessing his skiercross competition, was even less generous: "The athletes are far from professional. Some guys are too aggro, hitting people and cutting people off, and I don't want to be associated with that." So much for the brotherhood of mutual respect.

Still, there were common bonds. Air, for example¿the bigger and beefier the better¿spanned all cultural chasms. It made no difference whether you were on a snowboard, on skis, on skiboards, or even on a snowmobile¿if you ramped up to some towering assault on stratospheric airspace, you were a rock star.

There was, of course, the bond of pain. Pain was everyone's soul mate. At the bottom of the skiboard jump, one competitor asked, "Hey, does anyone know where the medical clinic is?" This brought a round of vigorous laughter. Everyone knew where the medical clinic was. It was like asking some guy where his own navel was. As the games wore on, every competitor had either been treated at the medical center, had visited or escorted someone there, or was wondering about some buddy being worked on there.

Finally, there was the common bond of sponsor chasing. If you weren't out networking, Hostetter-style¿or at least dropping a few hints and pressing some flesh¿you were missing out. Jeremy Nobis called it "an exposure opportunity"; fellow skiercrosser Tyler Williams called it "a chance to pick up a new sponsor." Ski companies, snowboard companies, clothing companies, eyewear companies¿all had their representatives in Crested Butte. Big-ticket sponsors¿the car, soft drink, fast-food, and beer people¿were there, too. For athletes who made any kind of stir at the X Games, the air buzzed with contractual possibility.

Needless to say, no one grasped this reality with more self-assurance than the Palm. The Palm had entered every event possible: boardercross, skiercross, on-snow mountain biking, even snowmobile racing. No matter who you were or where you were competing, you were always being upstaged by the disdainful ego of the Palm.

The X Games audience loved him, which is why ESPN loved him and gave him serious airtime, which is why his sponsors loved him, too. The Palort athletes together in a union of shared experience. Here was a chance for skiers, snowboarders, skiboarders, even snowmobilers to put away petty rivalries and come together in an orgy of mutual interest and respect; to smoke, in a spirit of cross-cultural camaraderie, from some metaphorical bong. Peace, brother.

Not a chance. If anything, the X Games reaccentuated the caste divisions of winter. In the lobby of the Marriott, snowboarders swarmed lazily on the floor, an interlocking ooze of Gore-Tex¿encased flesh. They were their own, inseparable entity. So, too, were the snowmobilers, who dressed as if they were from places like Fargo, North Dakota, marching around in their explosively colorful NASCAR-style jackets. They were, in fact, from places like Fargo, North Dakota. While others smoked pot, the snowmobilers just plain smoked. The skiers represented a kind of middle ground, more adult and less pierced than the snowboarders, but nowhere near as beef-stew all-American as the snowmobilers.

Sometimes the caste differences were etched with defiance. After winning the skiboarding triple air, Chris Hawks was asked to address the youth of America. He curled his lip in a comically purposeful sneer. "I want people either to ski or to skiboard," Hawks said, "but not snowboard. And you can quote me on that." Yet there was Jonny Moseley, calling skiboarding "just another division. Skiboarding is lame." The divisions went even deeper, separating freeskiers from freestylers from racers, and here was Moseley's turn to take a hit. "Jonny Moseley is going to do skiercross and he's gonna get killed," said Jeremy Nobis, former racer and now freeskier. "He doesn't have the skills." (Moseley in fact bowed out of skiercross because of his big-air injury.) Rob Boyd, assessing his skiercross competition, was even less generous: "The athletes are far from professional. Some guys are too aggro, hitting people and cutting people off, and I don't want to be associated with that." So much for the brotherhood of mutual respect.

Still, there were common bonds. Air, for example¿the bigger and beefier the better¿spanned all cultural chasms. It made no difference whether you were on a snowboard, on skis, on skiboards, or even on a snowmobile¿if you ramped up to some towering assault on stratospheric airspace, you were a rock star.

There was, of course, the bond of pain. Pain was everyone's soul mate. At the bottom of the skiboard jump, one competitor asked, "Hey, does anyone know where the medical clinic is?" This brought a round of vigorous laughter. Everyone knew where the medical clinic was. It was like asking some guy where his own navel was. As the games wore on, every competitor had either been treated at the medical center, had visited or escorted someone there, or was wondering about some buddy being worked on there.

Finally, there was the common bond of sponsor chasing. If you weren't out networking, Hostetter-style¿or at least dropping a few hints and pressing some flesh¿you were missing out. Jeremy Nobis called it "an exposure opportunity"; fellow skiercrosser Tyler Williams called it "a chance to pick up a new sponsor." Ski companies, snowboard companies, clothing companies, eyewear companies¿all had their representatives in Crested Butte. Big-ticket sponsors¿the car, soft drink, fast-food, and beer people¿were there, too. For athletes who made any kind of stir at the X Games, the air buzzed with contractual possibility.

Needless to say, no one grasped this reality with more self-assurance than the Palm. The Palm had entered every event possible: boardercross, skiercross, on-snow mountain biking, even snowmobile racing. No matter who you were or where you were competing, you were always being upstaged by the disdainful ego of the Palm.

The X Games audience loved him, which is why ESPN loved him and gave him serious airtime, which is why his sponsors loved him, too. The Palm knew how to work it, inspiring in his many followers a kind of white-trash cult worship. At the boardercross finish, a group of big-bellied Palmists ornamented their ample stomachs with grease-painted encomiums for their man. The idea was that, when the camera panned their way, they'd raise their shirts in the biting cold to have their colored flesh broadcast into living rooms across the nation.

Actually, it was all a bit sobering. If the Palm was an avatar of winter sport's future, if he represented the core values of some new 21st-century lifestyle¿if this was where sports in general and sports marketing in particular were headed¿then the future might be a scary thing.

So the question remained: Is this the real deal? It was one of the great issues wafting through Crested Butte, like a gas unable to condense into a liquid.

The X Games were undeniably the real deal as a marketing vehicle, spewing spin-off T-shirts, CDs, and a video game called X Games Pro Boarder. The X Games were also, it seemed, the real deal as a lifestyle statement¿"lifestyle" being a big word at the Games. All you had to do was hang out on the deck in the afternoon, with the music exploding all around you like a terrorist attack (music was also a big, big thing at the X Games), to witness the synthesis of California skate culture and Rocky Mountain high.

But were the X Games the real deal as an athletic event? Were the X Games truly the Olympics of alternative sport? Did they transcend the marketing hype, the ambulance chasing, and the lifestyle business? In short, did the X Games, in the grand scheme of winter sports, really matter?

That the event organizer, the ultimate arbiter on all matters X, was a TV production company was somewhat unsettling. A key criterion in the selection of sports, ESPN media coordinator Josh Krulewitz conceded, was that "it works well on TV and appeals to spectators." Not exactly the foundation of athletic legitimacy, though to ESPN's credit, this was far from the only selection criterion. Some level of legitimacy was, in fact, being factored in. Ice climbing¿a well-established winter sport but hardly a rousing, spectator-wowing exhibition¿remained part of the Winter X program, while snow-shovel racing, a wacky spectacle of the past, failed to make the cut.

In fact, most of the stuff that did make the cut made a real-deal, take-notice statement for athleticism nouveau. The skateboard-park tricks that big-air skiers like J.P. Auclair and Shane Szocs were pulling off, landing fakie half the time, were a new art form in expressing the body in motion. The consensus on skiercross was that, if the carnage could be toned down, it was a meaningful test of diverse skills, guts, and strategic intuition. But it was all so new, still evolving and so frenetically ad hoc, that figuring out where the X Games might land on Planet Sport five or 10 years hence was like trying to catch leaves in the wind. Ultimately, the real-deal issue was confounded by a fundamental paradox. Legitimacy is about acceptance and standards¿the very same mainstream clutches the X Games were trying to escape. To pursue legitimacy would be to rein in the beast, while the whole objective of the X Games was polarly opposite¿to open the cages and let the animals run wild.

So the debate went back and forth. "The X Games are exactly what we need," said skier Darian Boyle. "The progression is happening. The X Games are opening up the sports involved to a whole new level of respect." At the same time, said Alison Gannett, "Our dilemma is going to be how to keep the 'free' in freeskiing." Could a sport be respectable (which is to say, veering toward the mainstream) and free (which is to say, half crazed and unconventional) at the same time? Maybe it was a good thing that nobody really seemed to know for sure. Let someone in the future figure it out. Palm knew how to work it, inspiring in his many followers a kind of white-trash cult worship. At the boardercross finish, a group of big-bellied Palmists ornamented their ample stomachs with grease-painted encomiums for their man. The idea was that, when the camera panned their way, they'd raise their shirts in the biting cold to have theirr colored flesh broadcast into living rooms across the nation.

Actually, it was all a bit sobering. If the Palm was an avatar of winter sport's future, if he represented the core values of some new 21st-century lifestyle¿if this was where sports in general and sports marketing in particular were headed¿then the future might be a scary thing.

So the question remained: Is this the real deal? It was one of the great issues wafting through Crested Butte, like a gas unable to condense into a liquid.

The X Games were undeniably the real deal as a marketing vehicle, spewing spin-off T-shirts, CDs, and a video game called X Games Pro Boarder. The X Games were also, it seemed, the real deal as a lifestyle statement¿"lifestyle" being a big word at the Games. All you had to do was hang out on the deck in the afternoon, with the music exploding all around you like a terrorist attack (music was also a big, big thing at the X Games), to witness the synthesis of California skate culture and Rocky Mountain high.

But were the X Games the real deal as an athletic event? Were the X Games truly the Olympics of alternative sport? Did they transcend the marketing hype, the ambulance chasing, and the lifestyle business? In short, did the X Games, in the grand scheme of winter sports, really matter?

That the event organizer, the ultimate arbiter on all matters X, was a TV production company was somewhat unsettling. A key criterion in the selection of sports, ESPN media coordinator Josh Krulewitz conceded, was that "it works well on TV and appeals to spectators." Not exactly the foundation of athletic legitimacy, though to ESPN's credit, this was far from the only selection criterion. Some level of legitimacy was, in fact, being factored in. Ice climbing¿a well-established winter sport but hardly a rousing, spectator-wowing exhibition¿remained part of the Winter X program, while snow-shovel racing, a wacky spectacle of the past, failed to make the cut.

In fact, most of the stuff that did make the cut made a real-deal, take-notice statement for athleticism nouveau. The skateboard-park tricks that big-air skiers like J.P. Auclair and Shane Szocs were pulling off, landing fakie half the time, were a new art form in expressing the body in motion. The consensus on skiercross was that, if the carnage could be toned down, it was a meaningful test of diverse skills, guts, and strategic intuition. But it was all so new, still evolving and so frenetically ad hoc, that figuring out where the X Games might land on Planet Sport five or 10 years hence was like trying to catch leaves in the wind. Ultimately, the real-deal issue was confounded by a fundamental paradox. Legitimacy is about acceptance and standards¿the very same mainstream clutches the X Games were trying to escape. To pursue legitimacy would be to rein in the beast, while the whole objective of the X Games was polarly opposite¿to open the cages and let the animals run wild.

So the debate went back and forth. "The X Games are exactly what we need," said skier Darian Boyle. "The progression is happening. The X Games are opening up the sports involved to a whole new level of respect." At the same time, said Alison Gannett, "Our dilemma is going to be how to keep the 'free' in freeskiing." Could a sport be respectable (which is to say, veering toward the mainstream) and free (which is to say, half crazed and unconventional) at the same time? Maybe it was a good thing that nobody really seemed to know for sure. Let someone in the future figure it out.

Related