An X-clusive club
The night Steve Fisher became king of the Winter X Games superpipe, there was no way to see the bottom. Fisher soared too high – above the mob of cheering fans, above the ESPN cameras airing his unforgettable run to 145 million viewers worldwide, above expectations – to know just how far he could fall after reaching such a pinnacle.
But he hit the bottom just 12 months after that magical night in January 2004; the landing was hard and unforgiving.
Last January, at Winter X Games Nine, Fisher was forced to ride a friend’s board in the Sunday night superpipe prelims after breaking his only board during practice runs. He fell on both of his runs and finished last out of the 20 riders in the field, failing to advance to the finals the next night and defend his crown.
To purge what was the most disappointing moment in his career, Fisher left Aspen that night and drove home to Breckenridge as fast as he could.
Refocused a month later, and with a new board under his feet, he took second in the halfpipe at the U.S. Open in Stratton, Vt., just as he had the year before. Fisher’s rebound at the Open, which is snowboarding’s biggest stage after Winter X, appeared to be a return to elite status in the snowboarding community. Or so Fisher thought.
In late November, when ESPN released the first wave of athlete invitees for the upcoming Winter X Games 10, which starts Friday, Fisher’s name wasn’t on the list of 18 riders. Close to three weeks later when a second list was released, Fisher’s name again didn’t show up. The only addition to the first list for men’s superpipe was 17-year-old Danny Davis – Fisher’s teammate on U.S. Snowboarding’s halfpipe team.
Unlike Fisher, Davis had never won a World Cup or done well at the U.S. Open. His results at the first two Grand Prix of the season in Breckenridge earlier in December were the best of his career – a 12th followed by a third.
Meanwhile, Fisher had finished eighth and 11th at the same two events, results that marked a disappointing start to what he had hoped would be a push toward the Olympic halfpipe in Bardonecchia, Italy.
Still, Fisher never expected to be Xed off the invite list for the Winter X Games less than two years after winning the marquee event. Just recently, after he finished sixth at the third Grand Prix halfpipe at Mount Bachelor, Ore., he was finally extended the last invite to compete at this year’s games at Buttermilk.
He plans to return and try to reclaim his superpipe title, but Fisher is questioning his loyalty to the Winter X Games after being passed over twice.
“It was a definite kick in the nuts,” Fisher said earlier this week while preparing for the final two Grand Prix halfpipes in Mountain Creek, N.J. “There’s guys on that list who have never podiumed at a contest. I really don’t know what’s going on with their selection process. I’m pretty bitter.”
In and out
Fisher’s experience raises questions about the Winter X Games invite-only policy – a constant of the event since its inception 10 years ago at Big Bear, Calif.
Unlike the Grand Prix or the World Cup, for which riders qualify through results, or skiing and snowboarding’s respective U.S. Opens, which take all comers, Winter X has always handpicked its competitors.
Under the current system, each of the athletes in the 13 competitions are chosen by sport-specific committees made up of five members.
The criteria for each selection committee vary by sport, and for good reason. Picking competitors for a motocross best-trick contest is entirely different than choosing names for skiercross. The principle, however, remains the same: ESPN has the last say on who competes.
It’s a system that Melissa Gullotti, the Winter X Games media relations director, staunchly defends.
“We only pick the best of the best,” Gullotti said. “We’re talking the top 10 or 20 athletes in the entire world in their respective sport. You’re always going to have people who are disappointed when they’re not in that top 10 or 20, but we feel that these committees are extremely strong for each of our sports. These professionals (on the committees) have their finger on the pulse. It changes every year.”
Don Bostick, the sport organizer for snowboarding at the Winter X Games, said the invite-only format makes it the premier winter action-sports event in the world.
Bostick’s credentials give his argument weight, too. Before it was dissolved in November 2004, Bostick used to run the Vans Triple Crown – an open snowboarding series that drew hundreds of riders at each stop. He also previously served as the president of the United States of America Snowboarding Association, which holds its nationals each year.
Bostick said the Triple Crown served its purpose of giving up-and-coming riders a shot to establish themselves. At the same time, it suffered because the riders who had already made names for themselves were turned off by the process of competing against such a bloated field.
“At the Triple Crown, every year we could have had 200 people in slopestyle. We had a huge waiting list and people wouldn’t show up for their starts, which would make it more of a mess,” Bostick said. “The X Games has led that charge to where there are more invitation-only events.”
Many riders appreciate the invite-only system, but not all.
“It makes the contest a lot better compared to the Grand Prix, where there are, like, 120 kids,” said Kevin Pearce, an up-and-comer who didn’t get an invite to this year’s X Games. “I don’t think there are any downfalls to it.”
Fisher even said he preferred the invite-only format of the Winter X Games because of the smaller field and the high level of riding. But being on the outside looking in gives you a different perspective, he said.
“I know that there are guys from certain (board) companies who are definitely picking their riders over others,” Fisher said. “It’s all politics.”
Some, like Aspen/Snowmass Team rider Doran Laybourn, believe that the Winter X Games should hold official qualifiers for certain events. Up until two years ago, there were a number of qualifiers, but competitors only qualified to make themselves eligible for an invite. The sport selection committees still reserved the right to withdraw invitations to the qualifier winners. Now, the only remaining qualifiers are last-chance events for boardercross and skiercross – and the possibility of having an invite rescinded still applies.
“It’s my hometown – all I want to do is be in the slopestyle and show everybody what’s up,” said Laybourn when asked about not getting an invite to this year’s games. “X Games should definitely have a qualifier. It’s just straight-up voted on by a group of people who aren’t really following the circuit too much. It’s kind of weird, man. It’s all about TV money and it’s corporate and that sucks.”
Not an exact science
Deciding who gets in and who doesn’t is a long, tedious process for each sport committee, Bostick said.
For snowboarding halfpipe and slopestyle, the top-10 finishers from the year before earn an automatic invite, Bostick said. The 11th spot is typically reserved for the winner of the USASA nationals.
For the remaining nine spots, Bostick and his four committee members keep tabs on the results of contests all year long. He also personally watches every new snowboarding video released each year to see who has the strongest segments.
“I’m more of a results guy, but you have to look at the videos because some of the best riders – like the guys for slopestyle – don’t compete a lot,” he said. “The X Games might be the one competition they do all year. We kind of come up with different names and pass them around and then we narrow it down to the best 20.”
As for Fisher, Bostick defended the decision not to extend an invite in the first wave of selections after Fisher’s disappointing performance in the superpipe last year. Bostick said the committee wanted to see how Fisher rode at the first two Grand Prix at Breckenridge.
After Fisher posted average results, Bostick said the committee held off again to see what happened at the third Grand Prix in Mount Bachelor. When Fisher finished sixth, and no one else stepped to the fore, the committee offered Fisher the spot.
“Maybe it was a slap in the face, but that’s what we wanted it to be,” Bostick said. “He didn’t have a great year last year, and we wanted him to basically get out there and charge. The feedback that I got back from Breckenridge was that he wasn’t on the same level as everyone else – the level that he’s capable of riding at. The guy’s an incredible rider, but we had to weigh in all the new kids who were out there stepping up.”
Fisher interprets the situation differently. Bostick’s comments about “being a results guy” and Gullotti’s remarks that the committee picks “the best of the best” and that a “name has nothing to do with it” don’t necessarily add up, he said.
“I guess I don’t make for good TV, because that’s all the X Games is,” said Fisher, who admitted his low-key personality might have hurt him in the selection process. “I realize now what the X Games is, but I definitely don’t think everyone does. It’s just action sports glorified for TV. It’s just entertainment.”
Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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