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West Dover, Vt. Feb. 4 (AP by Mike Eckel)–Among the choices snowboarder Jason Evans had was going fakey, switch 900, switch McTwist, or big air.
The course, hewn from the snow-blown slopes of Mount Snow, involves big hits, rails and table tops. Because these are just practice runs for boardercross slopestyle, he chooses big air, which is just what it sounds like: air between the snowboarder and the ski slope. Lots of it.
“The hope here is to beat everybody,” says Evans, who grew up 25 miles east of here. “I like the head-to-head competition. It’s just an exciting feeling.”
In conversation, Evans, who is past North American champion on the snowboard half-pipe, is soft-spoken and reflective. Not on the slopes. Like the snowmaking guns, the music of Rage Against The Machine blankets the slopes and provides a throbbing soundtrack for snowboarding with a swagger.
Loud, brash, hip and edgy is the rule of thumb. This is not the Olympics. This is the made-for-TV sport. This is the X Games.
“The money, the TV, the exposure; it’s definitely more exciting,” says Chris Davenport of Aspen, Colo. “This is alternative sport and it’s hyped, exposed, and packaged in a dramatic way.”
The hype, the exposure, and the package comes courtesy of ESPN. In fact, the entire concept of an Olympics for alternative sports comes courtesy of the Bristol, Conn-based all-sports cable network. In June 1995, ESPN held the first “Extreme Games” involving windsurfing, bungy-jumping and mountain biking. Eighteen months later, a winter version of the games was held, showcasing snowboarding and snow mountain biking.
Once ESPN executives changed “Extreme” to “X”, the games became not just a series of high-intensity athletic events but a showcase of lifestyle. There’s pink hair, pierced body parts, pulsing music and a dialect unto itself. You’ll find camcorders, cell phones, Walkmans, and Web sites. The games are what “Generation X” calls their own, both athletes and spectators.
At Mount Snow, a 2 1/2-hour drive northwest of Boston, 350 athletes from 17 countries began competing Thursday in five sports in a competition that runs through Sunday. Some of the 16 events, like snowboarding half-pipe and skiboarding slopestyle _ are judged. Others are timed. Still others, like snowboard, snowmobile and mountain bike-cross, are head-to-head, with athletes vying to be the first across the finish line.
Steve Peat, a 25-year-old native of Chessfield, England, won a gold medal in the 1999 winter X Games for the “Biker X” event. That he screams downhill through a snowy obstacle course on a mountain bike is thrilling enough. A potential television audience of 150 million worldwide on ESPN, ESPN-2 and ABC makes the X Games huge, he says.
“It’s just a huge spectator sport,” Peat said. “You know, elbowing one another. It’s definitely frightening knowing at some point, you’re going to be banging bars with five other riders.”
With ESPN, the X Games aren’t merely broadcast. They’re shoved down the throats of viewers from Japan to Europe and across North America.
Given the top-to-bottom, plugged-in, marketed-to-the-max nature of the games_ there’s a two-story television screen at the base of one of the ski lifts and loudspeakers pulsing music everywhere_ it’s understandable there’s more than a hint of cynicism among athletes.
“This is all just a big TV show. They say they care about the athletes but they’ll just as soon disqualify you for being late or whatever,” says Ross Powers, a bronze medal winner at the 1998 Olympics, of South Londonderry, Vt.
Another skier X, Tyler Williams of Aspen, Colo. adds the games were dubbed the “carnage games” for many years due to the high rate of injuries.
Many athletes, though, are just as prepared to use the system, they say, as it uses them. Training for these athletes consists not only of weight-training and exercise; there’s also training in business acumen and savvy marketing. Forget amateur sport. X Gamers are professional athletes and professional self-promoters.
Sixteen-year-old snowboarder Kelly Clark, a native of Mount Snow’s hometown of West Dover, has at least six sponsors and an agent. Chris Vincent, a 28-year-old snowmobiler from Colchester, Vt., has endorsements covering nearly every square inch of his Ski-Doo snowmobile and uniform. Jason Evans has his own Web site, his own snowboard line, a fully outfitted RV, and his own traveling team, the “SnoSk8ers.” Selling out, he says, is the way it has to be.
“It’s the way to do it. It’s become the nature of the sport, and it’s just accepted a lot more now,” he says.
Davenport, the Aspen, Colo., native who was the 1996 world champion of extreme, or free, skiing, says the televised aspect of the games doesn’t bother him in the least. Rather, it provides a way to live a lifestyle, he says, and is healthy and positive.
“Hopefully, what we’re doing here inspires people to get off their butts and get outside,” says Davenport. “We’re just out there having fun. It’s great, it’s fun, and it’s cool.”
Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press