X Games mark the spot
Once renegade events, action sports are deserving of Olympic status
Story by Scott Willoughby
The Denver Post
ASPEN — It seems strange to think about the Winter X Games in terms of tradition. The event, after all, is founded on progression, innovation and invention. But that foundation turns 13 this week on the now-renowned slopes of Buttermilk Mountain. That's three Olympic cycles' worth of cutting-edge snowboarding and skiing, with Vancouver 2010 looming only 13 months away.
That may not quite qualify as a full-blown institution, but it's certainly time to establish a trend or two. Case in point: the tradition of X Games events moving from the action sports arena to the international stage that is the Winter Olympic Games.
Few imagined during the early "knuckle-dragging" era of snowboard halfpipe that was the Winter X Games at Big Bear, Calif., in 1997 that the evolution would not only land snowboarding in the Olympics but create international stars the likes of Shaun White and Gretchen Bleiler.
The 1998 addition of snowboarding competition to the Olympic schedule eventually grew to include snowboardcross racing — another X Games staple — at Turin 2006. In Vancouver, skicross takes its turn on the stage.
"The International Olympic Committee is looking for sports that are relevant. They want exciting television and a young demographic," said Bill Marolt, president and CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), the domestic liaison to the Olympics for skiing and snowboarding. "Any of these sports, all you have to do is be creative, figure out formats and create things people are excited about."
For several years, the logical progression of snowboard and ski events transcending the X Games to the Olympics has pointed to skiing superpipe as the encore to the snowboard event. And for several years, the burgeoning sport has been denied. To date, the closest it has come is a current attempt to finance a demonstration event at the Vancouver Games while holding out hope for a shot at Sochi 2014.
Meanwhile, there are the X Games.
"This is definitely like the Olympics for us at this point. It's the biggest event of the year and definitely the most influential event," said Jess Cumming, 25, a Copper Mountain team rider from Edwards competing in her fourth Winter X skipipe. "The push is for 2014. I think the momentum is catching on, but in order for it to get to the Olympics, it has to go through every country's national ski organization.
"That's where we've been kind of lacking in the support. And that's where more support needs to come through to get it into the Olympics."
Cumming and the other seven women competing in the superpipe at Winter X tonight may have found a new friend in Marolt, who appears to be offering just the support they seek.
Looking for new heroes
In an effort to increase American medal tallies at the Winter Olympics, Marolt has become a vocal advocate for the addition of many of the so-called "new school" sports the X Games are known for.
"Skipipe, slopestyle snowboarding — those things are on the table," Marolt said. "My personal thought is when you evaluate a sport, you have to look at critical mass. How many people do you really have involved in it? That will determine the talent level. That will determine the marketing potential. In my mind, skipipe is definitely high on that list.
"Every resort has a pipe. Tons of kids are twin-tipping and riding in the pipe. The heroes are already created. That seems to me the most likely place to go."
USSA and its international governing body at the International Skiing Federation (FIS) have established a World Cup circuit for superpipe skiing, a necessary step toward Olympic inclusion, with the first World Cup competition in the United States taking place next week in Deer Valley, Utah.
With minimal purses and a scarcity of media attention, World Cup competition has been slow to catch on among the sport's heaviest hitters. While the Winter X Games have created careers for athletes like Tanner Hall and Simon Dumont since pipe skiing was introduced in 2002, there has been little incentive to compete in World Cup competition without the Olympic payoff.
Others are willing to put in their time in hopes of reaping benefits down the road.
"I do all the World Cups and have for years," said two-time defending women's skipipe gold medalist Sarah Burke of Whistler, British Columbia. "The (World Cup) field is there for the women. It's 100 percent X Games athletes. The guys a little less, but five of the guys who are always at all the World Cups qualified for the men's finals."
Among them is Xavier Bertoni of France, who upset the men's superpipe skiing field to win his first Winter X Games gold medal over Hall (second) and Dumont (third) Thursday night. The win marked the first time since Candide Thovex's 2003 victory that anyone other than Hall or Dumont has won the event. Thovex and Bertoni both come from La Clusaz, France.
"It's crazy. I can't believe it," said Bertoni, who used back-to-back 900s and a 1260 with amplitude pushing above 20 feet for the top score of 93.66. "I'm really stoked."
The reintroduction of an international champ to Winter X could enhance the image of World Cup competition by bringing some X Games clout to the field in the future.
And that could translate to a continued tradition.
"Here there are the best skiers in the world, so I prefer to win the X Games than a World Cup," Bertoni said. "I want to do a World Cup with Simon, with Tanner. It will be really good for the sport, because we are not yet in the Olympic Games, but with the level going up in the World Cup, I think that will help the sport to go to the Olympic Games. That's also a dream for me."
Scott Willoughby: 303-954-1993 or email@example.com