When Is a Sport Not a Sport?

In the telecentric world of the X Games, only when it's not on the tube

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Maybe I’d been zapped numb by all the cathode rays bouncing around Big Bear Lake, California, or maybe it was the lunatic drive from Los Angeles up to Snow Summit Mountain, but my perception of ESPN’s first-ever Winter X Games didn’t come into focus until the evening after the finals, at a place called Sandy’s Sports Bar, where a male mountain biker and a female ice climber chided one another into an arm wrestling contest, then proceeded to strip naked and hunker down, mano a mano, at the crowded table.

The ice climber, Tiffany Levine, was trying to prove a point to this yahoo with the punk earrings and the peroxide-bright hair. To wit: Muscle is no respecter of gender. She’d had a pretty good day on ESPN’s Holographic Ice Tower, a 60-foot wall of water bonded to a steel frame and constantly cooled with liquid nitrogen. Her forearms were still pumped from swinging the ice tools, and her biceps and deltoids were solid as granite.

The mountain biker, a 22-year-old guy named Philip Tinstman who’d won the downhill speed event in the X Games, removed his shirt and sauntered around the bar, showing off his muscles. Levine stood there grinning, shaking her head. The crowd was getting into it. She pulled her shirt off and flexed, too: same kind of washboard abdominals, same taut vein-work traced between skin and muscle cordage.

Levine had matched him in the pose-down, so Tinstman had to up the ante. He unzipped his pants, removed them, and stepped back to see how far the ice climber was willing to take it. Extreme sports required extreme behavior, right?

Which is how the two of them ended up all but bare-butt in a crowded bar, hands locked across a table that until very recently had been lined with pitchers of quality, made-in-America beverages.

ESPN should have had at least a couple of cameras there, plus a producer and a crack editing team to do what ESPN does best: reconstitute the esoteric, filter it, spice it, splice it, and then market and distribute it under the label of “sport.” ESPN had tried hard to create the illusion of crowd enthusiasm on the snow course all week; here in the bar, the enthusiasm was real. Editors could have mixed in interviews, childhood photos, comments from feminists and grunge-rock snow commandos to create the carefully choreographed up-close-and-personal touch. Insert likable Gary Jobson as referee and commentator, and this impromptu showdown might have added a couple hundred thousand viewing households to the rating share.

But no, this match was private and personal. I’d been sitting with Nancy Prichard, a first-rate ice climber who, despite having a disappointing day on the wall, had remained sober and articulate. When I asked her who she thought would win, she said something like, “Who cares? You’ve got to love her attitude.” I’d been attacking the pitchers right along with everyone else, so if that’s not precisely what she said, it’s close. And it was in that instant that I finally grasped why extreme sports in general and the X Games in particular had captured America’s fascination while a long list of other so-called alternative sports had flushed themselves down the television hopper.

It was attitude, the go-for-it posturing that has become a mantra of the nineties: no fear, no limits, no excuses. The Winter X Games, of course, was only a cold-weather permutation of the more successful X Games, held every June, in which contestants compete in such events as “aggressive” in-line skating, stunt bicycling, and sky surfing. ESPN had assessed what it took to be the hard-assed, in-your-face persona of Generation X and assembled a scaffolding of “events” that made it all marketable.

Which is why the arm wrestling contest would have made an ideal addition to ESPN’s 22 hours of X Games programming. It had attitude. It had sex appeal. It had head-banger music pounding in the background.

Finally, the arm-wrestling commenced. The damn mountain biker slammed Levine’s wrist to the table over and over again. But just as Prichard had said, no one cared who won or lost. They were just doing it.

With the exception of competitors and their friends, most people who showed up at Snow Summit Resort to watch the preliminaries on Thursday and Friday not only didn’t seem to care who won or lost, they didn’t recognize the names of those who were competing — nor had they ever heard of the events they were competing in. Super Modified Shovel Racing? Big Air? The Boarder X? What was this lunacy?

Things weren’t much clearer at the press center inside the Bear Bottom Lodge at the foot of the slopes. An ESPN assistant director estimated that 500 journalists representing various media had arrived to cover the event. But after a few days of dealing with the chaos at the press center, it became apparent that out of the multitude roaming around with press IDs flapping from their parkas, there may have been a few dozen at most who had actually come to work. The rest were imposters, hangers-on, and the friends of friends who, by their sheer numbers, helped create a holiday junket attitude that made it damn near impossible to gain working access to the events, let alone the starting areas.

As one journalist from a ski magazine told me, “ESPN doesn’t care about press access. They’re covering this thing — and they’re the only ones who matter.” He was right. The X Games wasn’t a sporting event. It was a television program. The cast was made up of devoted if unheralded adepts at arcane disciplines whose motivation, presumably, was the opportunity to be catapulted onto the national stage. It certainly wasn’t the allure of a $3,000 first prize — a miserly sum in light of ESPN’s multimillion-dollar investment. A bit player in a third-rate sitcom would have been paid more.

Nor did ESPN have much reason to care if spectators arrived to watch the games. The only audience that mattered was umbilicaled to the network and its sponsors via satellite. While a network staffer had, prior to the event, been quoted in a local newspaper as promising that the X Games would attract no fewer than 12,000 people per day to the town of Big Bear Lake, the actual figure was between 2,000 and 6,000. And that is a generous estimate, because judging by the thin crowds in the viewing stands, most of Big Bear’s visitors had come to ski or snowboard themselves, not to watch the games. Indeed, during the women’s downhill preliminaries, the camera crew working the finish line had to assemble a claque of volunteers behind the winners and cheer on cue in order to suggest some semblance of crowd enthusiasm.

ESPN may not have cared, but the local businesspeople did. With a population of 15,000, Big Bear Lake is a San Bernardino Mountain resort town with a racky-tacky architecture of strip malls, plywood cabins, Aspenish chalets, Taco Bells, snowboard rental sheds, and chain motels. It’s a place built for the quick culling of tourist dollars. The townspeople had been promised that cash-carrying hordes would arrive to fill their hotels and restaurants and bars. Instead, business was up only slightly from the regular ski season crowd. “Hey, where did all the people go?” read a headline in the San Bernardino County Sun.

Well…most of them seemed to be encamped at the press center. After a day of being shooed away from starting gates and finish lines, I was not the first working writer to decide, screw it, I’d sit on the press center patio and watch the games on the outdoor Jumbotron, a 20-by-27-foot television screen that was elevated off the bed of a generator truck. Thus positioned, we watched exactly what viewers across the nation were watching.

Which sounds lame. Hell, it was lame. But as I grew used to it, I came to realize that watching the Jumbotron was the perfect way, perhaps the only way, to cover this strange theater. Until the various races had been processed and pasteurized in the production room, the X Games did not exist. A racer’s descent of the snow course or a climber’s ascent of the ice wall, although occasionally spectacular, still remained a relatively drab articulation of lone-wolf sport until ESPN mixed in the critical additives: grunge tunes, contrived drama, and backward-cap yo-dude aggressiveness. It’s a combination of elements that, not surprisingly, has proved essential to most successful video games. And that is exactly what we were watching: a living, breathing video game.

After I realized that, the events were kind of fun. I’d sit on the patio in the sun, sipping free Mountain Dew and eating free sandwiches, watching the Jumbotron and making notes. Not that it was always easy. Sometimes it was hard to find an open table. Apart from all the media milling about, a dozen or so SWAT cops had also chosen to make the press center their permanent hangout. No one could explain their presence, but the fact that there were no terrorist attacks on the press room is a proud matter of public record. The cops would Bogart the tables, lounge around in their green muscle shirts, and then rush into line the moment food was served.

It was at the press center that a couple of other magazine writers and I engaged in a review and assessment of previous sporting events that had been contrived exclusively for television and therefore had died just deaths. There was ABC’s Battle of the Network Stars, in which actors from a TV series competed in a variety of events against actors from another TV series. There was a similar offering that pitted employees of one corporation against another (a show that drew big numbers in Japan but flopped in America). There was the NFL arm-wrestling championship and various outdoor sports challenges that featured whitewater kayaking, rope crossings, orienteering, and climbing. My personal favorite was The Superstars, the granddaddy of the genre and one of the first to be labeled a “trash sport.” It was produced by ABCback in the seventies, and it brought together sporting greats from a variety of fields to compete in a series of events designed to prove, supposedly, who the true Superstar was.

The first couple of Superstars events were held at Rotonda, Florida, an appropriately canned and poured-to-form planned community. I know — I was there. The list of athletes included people such as Johnny Bench, Rod Laver, Kyle Rote Jr., Johnny Unitas, and Joe Frazier. Olympic pole vaulter Bob Seagren won the first Superstars, but it was Frazier who was the crowd favorite. His bicycle broke during the mile bike race, and in a fit of pique he proceeded to beat the bejesus out of the thing. Then, in the 25-yard swim, Frazier dove in and nearly drowned. After he’d been fished out, a reporter asked him why he’d tried to race if he didn’t know how to swim. Frazier replied, “How was I to know I couldn’t unless I tried it?”

Even though the contestants were, for the most part, truly extraordinary athletes with considerable marquee value, ABC failed to capture the event with the kind of balls-to-the-wall spirit that’s been perfected by ESPN. Which is precisely why The Superstars gradually faded away, while the X Games phenomenon — now, according to ESPN executives, the most watched sports category among males aged 12 through 34 — continues to grow.

This is not to denigrate the athletes who came to Big Bear Lake for the Winter X Games. The list of events may have sounded strange, but that doesn’t mean just anyone could leap into the breach and compete successfully. It’s easy to sit on a sunny patio and dismiss the whole production as trash sport; it’s a very different thing indeed to stand at the top of a mountain or at the base of an ice wall — or, to take an event from the summer X Games, to jump from an airplane with a surfboard strapped to one’s feet — and imagine trying to survive.

Even the shovel racers had to possess a double ration of grit. Before being ordered away from the shovel racing pit area, I had a chance to stand around and watch the teams work on these strange vehicles that look something like coffins painted in fluorescent colors and bolted to skis. Some cost as much as $8,000 to build; several used nitrogen-powered pneumatic braking systems and parts scavenged from fighter jets. Yet they were fueled by nothing more sophisticated than gravity.

The true nature of the X Games’ appeal may be illustrated by the fact that shovel racing — which demands little athletic ability — was probably the most popular event of all. Why? Because there were some absolutely bitching crashes. Bill Wick of San Clemente smashed into the retaining wall when his brakes failed. Defending “world champion” Gail Boles of Taos rolled his Thor’s Hammer at least a dozen times and walked away flashing the thumbs-up sign.

I was in the press room watching ESPN’s raw video feed when the worst crash occurred: John Strader, also of Taos, pitchpoled his Viper down the hill, his legs dangling from the cockpit like some drugged rag doll. He had sustained three compression fractures of the thoracic spine, broken his jaw, and sprained his wrist. When his sled finally stopped rolling, I heard an unidentified voice come over the raw feed: “Man, it looked great on TV!”

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