When the X Gamers descend on Aspen every winter, we Booming bleeping locals are always glad to have them, if only because of our friends in the restaurant business. The slackers and knuckle-draggers have to drink and they have to eat--X does not live by Red Bull, Monster, or RockStar alone -- so it's good to know that bar bills jounced by Red Bull-and-vodkas are sure to bounce half-again higher than a tuned-up half-pipe.
That ain't the half of it, of course. What I love about the ESPN X Games is the innocence of the athletes, the way all the snowboard girls look just exactly like our own Gretchen Bleiler -- blonde, big-eyed, and absolutely fearless. I love their sportsmanship: the way they actually seem to root for each other without prompting. No other sport does sportsmanship like the X Games. That alone is cause for celebration.
The sports themselves are almost beyond compare -- is there anything better than watching boardercross? -- and the superpipers at their best combine ballet with rebellion in a way Balanchine would have to admire. I'm not a fan of made-for-television sports in general--the X Games, summer and winter, are the granddaddy and grandmommy of them all -- but I've never seen anything to compare with the sound and fury of snowmobilers literally growling over your head, popping up like a Jack-in-the-box smacked by a hacky-sacker.
All of that is hard to beat, especially the sportsmanship and the sport of it, which is not to say the X Games are without flaw. The prevalence of overbearing sponsors is overwhelming, particularly at the end of the pipe when energy drinks are shoved into the hands of athletes expected to instantly swill them at the very height of their sports lives. What makes the sponsorships annoying is the counter-culture patina that surrounds sports that don't sell out to the man.
Other than the host, Sal Masakela, the announcers don't help things one little bit. In order to win, according to these experts, the X Gamers have to go either "massive" or "huge" though there's no way to know which vaporous adjective is more massively vapid. The level of commentary in general is inarticulate and obtuse, with no way for a neophyte to come away from the Games on ESPN knowing anything. How can you get rad without scads of the real scoop.
Those are minor annoyances compared to the final problem, one so big it's way beyond huge: the X Games are almost definitely going to kill somebody some day.
We were watching when our own Gretchen took a murderous fall from the heights under the lights -- banging her head so hard on the pipe she broke her helmet. Anyone who saw the replay knew she was done and probably should have been taken to the hospital for observation or an immediate magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam. Instead, for the ESPN cameras, she had to go through the charade of acting as if she were A-OK, promising to continue the superpipe competition as if nothing bad had happened. The slimmest slice of reality made it on the air when she finally admitted said: "I've been better" -- and dropped out of the competition.
Looming death was far more palpable as snowmobiler Lee Lavallee prepared to attempt a double back-flip on his 500-pound snowmobile. Yes -- he had "landed" the trick in a foam pit, but at the X Games he would be facing his comeuppance on hard snow, with no guarantee he would land it, live, or even walk away. He did land the double (miraculously) but fell off the snowmobile on impact -- without the landing, the trick didn't count--but Lavalee jumped up like he had discovered silver in an Aspen mine.
He could have killed himself, but hey -- as Peter Gammons used to say on the sports pages -- nobody's perfect. The gnarliest thing you can do about the Winter X Games in Aspen is raise your Red Bull to the sky and thank God nobody died.