Tahoe athletes help push X Games into sports mainstream | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe athletes help push X Games into sports mainstream

David Gignilliat, Tribune Staff Writer

The “X” in Winter X Games is short for “extreme.” It is intended to characterize the beyond ordinary, off-the-beaten-path sports and athletes on display at the yearly ESPN-sponsored altern-Olympics.

But it might as well stand for “extreme”-ly successful, as evidenced by the event’s large corporate sponsorship and its ability to attract Olympic-caliber athletes, including some of Tahoe’s best.

Or maybe “extreme”-ly popular, as in the five-day winter festival’s cult obsession among the typically hard-to-reach 12-24 age demographic.

The event will try to carve its niche a little further into a pro sports landscape dominated by baseball, basketball and football as preliminary competition begins Wednesday in Crested Butte, Colo.

“Even for your mainstream football, baseball and basketball (viewers), the sports at the X Games are really exciting, both as a spectator and as a television viewer,” said Ian Votteri, ESPN Winter X Games assistant director of marketing and communication. “I’m not surprised it has caught on. The (physical) contact is unrehearsed and the television production is great. It’s an exciting event.”

The third-annual Games will have 17 hours of footage taped for ESPN/ESPN2/ABC broadcasts Jan. 16-21; the event, however, will officially start today and continue through Sunday. The competition includes six sports categories and will award medals to male and female athletes in 17 different disciplines. More than 350 athletes will compete in snowboarding, ice climbing, snow mountain bike racing, free skiing, skiboarding and snowmobile snocross for more than $230,000 in cash and prizes.

Several new disciplines have been added to this year’s event. Bixer X, which pits six riders head-to-head on a motocross style racing format, will replace speed and dual downhill events. A triple air competition will combine big air and slopestyle skiboarding events, challenging racers on a course with three tabletops and several tortuous turns. Free skiers will be able to test their wares in a new big air event, where participants will be judged on their ability to negotiate runs with a combination of height, distance, difficulty and landing.

But by far the most popular sport at the Winter X Games is snowboarding. The sport will make up the largest part of the Games’ television coverage. Snowboarding competition is divided into four disciplines – boarder X, big air, slopestyle and halfpipe – and will attempt to build on the sport’s debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Leading that charge is multi-sport star Shaun Palmer, a flamboyant, fearless athlete, businessman and South Shore resident. Palmer is the two-time defending boardercross champion and will attempt a record-setting feat in Crested Butte. Race organizers have invited Palmer to compete in this year’s biker X, skier X, boarder X and snocross competitions, representing the first time an X Games athlete will compete in more than one event.

Palmer emerged ‘from the couch’ to grab gold – and a mid-air invisible beer mug – in Crested Butte last year and has similar plans for this year.

“What I’m going to try to get out of the X Games is some gold and a whole bunch of cash,” said Palmer, who will have a hectic week of competition and will switch gears to compete in different sports in a matter of minutes.

Nine other area snowboarders will also compete in Crested Butte, including Truckee resident Jim Rippey. Rippey will make his third trip to the X Games and will participate in big air, boarder x and slopestyle disciplines. His top finish last year was 11th place in the slopestyle competition after a fourth-place showing in 1997. Fifteen free skiers round out the Tahoe Basin’s entries.

What draws so many local athletes to the competition, though?

“I love to compete. You can rate yourself against who you perceive to be the best,” said Truckee native Michael Beallo, who will competing in this year’s snowboarding big air competition. “You can see who is doing what, see who’s trying to push the envelope for the sport. Face it, if you like to compete, and like to compete against the very best, you’re going to be there.”

Not only will some of the world’s-best winter athletes be there, but likely more than 30,000 spectators. And TV viewers in 180 countries, 20 languages and more than 75 million U.S. homes.

“If you want to get into alternative sports, it’s a great place to start,” said Alan Vano, USASA South Shore Series director. “For the longest time, these sports were considered ‘grunge.’ ESPN took it from being an underdog Olympics and made it something much bigger. People are changing their minds and thinking, ‘Maybe we had the wrong idea about these sports?'”

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