Olympians Race in X Games
ESPN X Games founder and creator Ron Semiao remembers the first time he saw a 12-year-old snowboarder named Shaun White compete in the 1999 Winter X Games.
"He was a pipsqueak going down the hill," Semiao recalls. "He had no global recognition as a snowboarder. We just knew him as a skateboarder."
When White, now 23, returns to the Winter X Games this weekend in Aspen, Colo., it is as the defending Olympic men's halfpipe champion and the favorite to repeat in Vancouver. In his trophy case next to his 2006 Olympic gold medal are nine Winter X Games gold medals (four in superpipe and five slope style) and one gold, one silver and one bronze in Summer X Games skateboard vert ramp.
It might be hard to believe, but there was a time when the X Games were too cool for the Olympics and the Olympic movement thumbed its nose at the idea of a global action sports competition.
Anita DeFrantz, a U.S. member of the International Olympic Committee, said in a 2002 interview, "Billions of people around the world watch the Olympics, while the X Games are a U.S. phenomenon. The X Games exist to increase the ratings of a TV network. The Olympic Games have much higher goals: to create a more peaceful world."
Eight years and 12 Olympic snowboard medals later, there will be 42 Olympians in the Winter X Games, including 2006 snowboard cross silver medalist Lindsey Jacobellis and all eight from the U.S. halfpipe team.
The addition of Olympic men's and women's ski cross this year is part of a bigger plan.
"The IOC has been looking for opportunities to make the Olympics more relevant to a younger audience," U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Bill Marolt says.
One Winter X event, Ski Superpipe, could make it to the 2014 Winter Games as "skier-pipe," Marolt says. In the event, skiers perform tricks on a halfpipe, which is 22 feet this year but could change by 2014.
The X Games has had an impact on Olympic culture, as well.
When Jacobellis, 20, lost a chance at a 2006 Olympic gold medal because she fell at the final jump while attempting a trick, she was criticized by commentators but cherished in the action sports world for adding pizazz. "That's the idea that should be getting out," she says. "Not, 'I gotta win, I gotta win.' ."
But one venerable snowboarder says a pox on both houses.
"The Olympics' most amazing achievement is creating the most-exposed snowboard event in the world without having any effect on snowboarding culture or its finances," says Norwegian snowboard legend Terje Haakonsen, 35, who competes internationally but not in the X Games or in the Olympics.
"Twelve years after snowboarding first appeared in the Olympics, videos, magazines and independent snowboard contests are still the main driver of our culture."
He credits the X Games for listening to riders but decries its commercialism. "All humans, snowboarders or not, should think twice about what they buy, eat, drink or consume," he says. "We can't continue plundering the Earth."