The world’s top freestyle skiers and snowboarders have spent four days here, throwing down their wildest tricks in their final event before next month’s Olympics.
The level of sport is incredibly high, but the overall vibe at the Aspen X Games is more like a music festival with a side of sport.
Women’s halfpipe skiing paused mid-event for a musical number by Method Man & Redman to promo their Saturday evening concert; stalls sell organic fermented kombucha on tap; and the security staff search people for marijuana and vape pens.
Yes, this event attracts a young audience — and that’s something that the International Olympic Committee covets. That’s why they’ve been bringing more and more action sports, popularized at the X Games, into the Olympic program.
They adopted ski and snowboard cross, where athletes race head-to-head over a course and crashes are common, and more recently an array of freestyle skiing and snowboarding events, where athletes in baggy pants throw down stylish and jaw-dropping tricks. The newest snowboarding addition is the single-trick big air event, debuting next month in Pyeongchang, while skateboarding and surfing are on the slate for the 2020 Summer Games.
But no matter how many action sports the Olympics pick up, much of what happens here at the X Games can’t be replicated — and that may not be such a bad thing.
“When athletes come here, this is us. This is our lifestyle. We’re not sharing it with figure skaters. We’re not sharing it with bobsledders. This is action sports. This is what we all grew up on,” said X Games vice-president Tim Reed.
The athletes rave about their experience here — from the quality of the courses and competition format to the VIP treatment — and it’s rare to find a snowboarder or skier who doesn’t say that they wish the World Cups they have to compete in to qualify for the Olympics were more like the X Games. But the atmosphere is only possible because of its exclusivity. Only the best few in each discipline are even invited to compete at this four-day event.
The field is small — just 150 athletes from 18 countries, compared to 2,900 from more than 90 countries who will compete in Pyeongchang.
In snowboarding big air, for example, there were just eight men from five countries competing for medals. When the event makes its Olympic debut next month, there will be 40 men from 20 countries.
The X Games are unabashed about the small fields, arguing that it’s providing the final explosion in a fireworks show without the tiresome preamble. And here it doesn’t really matter, because this event has none of the pretensions that the Olympics have about bringing the athletes of the world together in an attempt to foster some greater good through sport.
It’s debatable whether the Olympics actually meet any of those nobler intentions, but there’s no debate about the purpose of the X Games: They’re a television show that started as a summer event in 1995, when ESPN was launching ESPN2.
“It was being positioned as the young, irreverent second channel to ESPN and, obviously, if you’re going to launch a 24-hour network you need programming,” Reed explained.
The X Games were the brainchild of former ESPN executive Ron Semiao, who decided to take all the disparate extreme sports and “bring them together Olympic-style,” Reed said.
The first winter edition was in 1997 and included sports — ice climbing, snow mountain bike racing and super-modified shovel racing — that have long since disappeared from the program.
The Aspen X Games have become the annual sports and music extravaganza that winter freestyle athletes grow up watching and dreaming of one day winning a gold medal at. But above all, it remains a competition designed to be a television show.
That means short and snappy events in a compact venue that keeps costs low and TV production values high. It also means sports can come and go for production reasons rather than athletic ones.
Snowboard and ski cross were dropped because they require a long course: tricky to shoot for TV, and there wasn’t room on site to bring the event to the bottom of the hill where the spectators are gathered.
“This is always meant to be fun,” Reed said of what drives this event.
That’s fun for spectators and athletes. The athletes represent themselves and their sponsors, not their nation in a high-stakes opportunity that comes around just once every four years.
“Last year, I had an unreal time and got third place. This time, I still had an unreal time, got fifth place, but it’s all happy and I’m super stoked on how I skied,” Canadian slopestyle skier Alex Beaulieu-Marchand said after his Sunday final.
“At the Olympics, people want to see Americans win if you’re American, and Canadians want to see Canadians win. It’s super cool to represent your country, but . . . in a way at X Games, it’s super cool that it isn’t like that. We’re all friends in the skiing industry and before there was the Olympics and national teams (for slopestyle) we’d travel together.”
The Olympic movement isn’t about to abandon competition among nations, but it is determined to push ahead with new action-packed sports that are shorter, more TV friendly and appeal to a younger audience, and it’s easy to see why.
“The explosion that we had last time with slopestyle in Sochi was amazing,” said Roberto Moresi, the park and pipe contest director for FIS, which governs international skiing and snowboarding. “Obviously there is space for something different, something new.”
But the exclusivity of the X Games, which is responsible for much of what athletes love here, is something that the Olympics and the World Cup circuit, which provides the avenue to getting there, have little interest in replicating.
“Eight is not enough,” Moresi said of the many small fields here. “There’s a whole world out there. We have to give space to as many nations as possible. We have to find the balance between number of riders and number of nations.”