Saturday, January 20, 2007
The ski boots go on and the question nags: How could I have taken this sport to the highest competitive level?
Being born or bred in Steamboat is an easy answer.
Of the 250 global competitors at the upcoming Winter X Games 11, close to 10 percent of the field are from Colorado. Half of those claim Steamboat as a hometown, formative training ground or residence.
Two of them even live together. Lowell Whiteman graduates David Lamb (Skier X), Pep Fujas (Skiing Slopestyle, alternate) and Steamboat's Tyler Hamlet all share a place at the mouth of the Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon. Lamb devotes himself full-time to training for a slew of big mountain and freestyle events. He knows that the X Games top this list and that exposure there can catapult him into the media and sponsorship stratosphere.
Winter X is broadcast in 121 countries with an average viewership last year across the three networks (ESPN, ESPN 2 and ABC) of 747,000 households.
This saturation is not lost on Gina Gmeiner. "It's the biggest event we have - it's the Olympics for (Women's Superpipe skiers)."
The Steamboat skier feels marginalized because her event is not scheduled for a network broadcast and the lack of a women's slopestyle event. She also noted the "very random" selection process, where she was picked as an alternate after finishing second overall at NorAm events.
Tim Reed, X Games director of sports and competition, said that the only guarantee for a return invite is a gold medal the year before. From there, each event has a committee that includes top athletes. The committee does consider results, but it also "monitors deep in the scene" to gauge the most progressive athletes - including attention-grabbing film exploits.
For Brett Buckles, the spotlight puts heavy pressure on a sport in flux such as Women's Skiercross. Although skiercross got its 2010 Olympic nod in November, Buckles feels the sport's popularity is dying at home, where committees have to "dig ridiculously deep," for female competitors. "I'm lucky enough to be on the brink of all this, but there's pressure to connect and get more women out there," she said.
The X Games can be both an international tipping point for the growth of a sport (see Olympic snowboarding, halfpipe and snowboardcross) or a valid test for fringe sports that deserve to fall into obscurity (see skiboarding and super-modified shovel racing).
Organizers like Reed have to keep a keen eye on sport trends and evolution. Notable changes at this year's games include leaving Moto X events on dry ground and a 10-man snowmobile freestyle event. The "Big Trick Showdown" has switched from a ski to snowboard event and the men's Skiing Slopestyle is back.