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Saturday, February 1, 2003
Games set quite an X-ample

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Editor's Note: Eric Neel isn't really an "extreme guy," but Page 2 sent the columnist to the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo., to cover the event from an outsider's point of view. Here's his report from the second day of competition:

Mainstream is just a word for the way things always have been -- just a middle-of-the-road, tow-the-line thing, a front for the Man serving up the same warmed-over slop he did yesterday and expecting you to say, "thank you sir, may I have another?"

Snowmobilers
The Winter X Games might not be mainstream, but that doesn't mean mainstream is better.
It's outsiders who move us forward, shake us out of who we are and give us a peek at who we might be. The future isn't center-cut, it's on the margins.

And so a note to Misters Tagliabue, Stern, and Selig: Yours are the games of yesterday and today, and for years they've made up the core of the American sports soul. But be advised, the center cannot hold forever. It will shift. It is shifting.

You feel the rumblings beneath the house. You hear the foundation creaking and moaning. What to do? How to adapt before the walls come tumbling, tumbling?

Not to worry, it just so happens the new thang is on display right now at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo.

Take notes. Here's a list of things to emulate:

  • The X Games are free. Not free-as-a-bird-now free (though there is a bit of that Skynrd love of wide open spaces floating around). No, we're talking zero-dollars-and-zero-cents free. Walk-right-in-free. Heck-these-games-would-be-nothing-without-you free. Here's a little thing that happens when you don't take my dough at the door: I'm happy; I get a warm, loving feeling for the athletes and what they do, and I feel like the whole show -- every flip, grab and run -- is a gift. I'm not dissatisfied (Hear that, Bud?), I'm not disappointed (Paul, you getting this?), I'm grateful. Damndest thing.

    Winter X coverage
    For all the latest photos, videos, stories and TV schedules, be sure to check out the complete coverage of Winter X Games VII at EXPN.com.

  • There is serious tuneage. Music pumping out of speakers and pouring through headphones everywhere. Guys ski to it, girls jump to it, spectators bounce, sway and groove to it. Right brain, baby. Right brain. Where do you think things like devotion and enthusiasm come from? That's right, it's a groove thing. Pump it up. Next time a guy comes sprinting in from the bullpen to "Back in Black"? Leave it on. Let him bust off some sliders with Angus playing backup.

  • Style counts. It ain't enough to do it, it's how you do it. Think about it: Amare Stoudemire picks up a loose ball under the bucket and slams it home -- two points. Fine. Amare Stoudemire runs the lane, gets a nice dish from Stephon Marbury in stride and rises up and over two back-pedaling defenders, cocks his left arm at the elbow, lets his right arm and the ball kind of shoot the moon and come raining down on the rim -- three, maybe three-and-a-quarter points (depending on how the judges think it compares to other dunks they've seen tonight). Nice. Very nice. The kind of tasty bonus that would make guys get more creative, more airborne and experimental. That wouldn't fill seats or anything would it?

  • You know what comes with style? Lingo. You know what happens with lingo? It travels through the culture like a happy virus. The kids start using it, and they pass it on. Pretty soon, words like "ill," "sketchy," "wicked" -- words that are pegged to your sport -- are cropping up all over the place. Next thing you know, folks are improvising on key terms and inventing new ones, just straining to keep up with what they see on the slopes and courses. And it isn't long before you've got a sport that's the very definition of hip. Think football: "Cover Two," "Three Wide" -- these kinds of technical terms are a start, but what I'm saying is, give me some lyrical licks for what happens when a guy finger-snatches a ball out of the air he had no business pulling down, give me some handles to grab onto flair and brilliance.

    Winter X fans
    Winter X fans not only get in free, they can nearly touch the competitors at SuperPipe.
  • The X in X Games? It stands for aXcess. People are close to the action, close to the competitors (handshakes, autographs and pictures are common; the fans can almost touch the snowboarders as they come over the lip of the SuperPipe), close to the idea that what's happening, wild as it is, ain't some other-worldly phenomenon but a basic element of the world in which they live. People, especially the kids, feel connected to what's happening. Feels like it's happening not just in front of them, but to them.

  • And here's another note on the participation tip: let them play, let them play, let them play. Yeah, you mainstream sports have got your interactive zones and your fan "experiences," and that's nice, but that's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is simultaneous, sideline, edges and outskirts stuff. I'm talking kids skiing while their idols ski, skiing while they watch their idols ski. I'm talking synergy.

    What else? Well, I don't want to overwhelm you. I know you're feeling a little like Lloyd Dobbler at dinner with Diane and her dad, and that this is all a lot to think about right now -- and I know some of this is going to sound outlandish, impractical and impossible -- but you know, you gotta dream a little dream, you gotta go big every once in a while.

    Gretchen Bleiler
    Gretchen Bleiler won gold in the women's SuperPipe -- and plenty of praise from her fellow competitors. (And, yes, that IS Coolio over her right shoulder.)
    So just stay open, listen to the spirit of what I'm saying and know that the world of mainstream sports could stand to work in a little of the X Games' &

  • Sense of comradery among athletes. A simple "Yeah, Gretchen" from about 20 of her competitors in the moments before her finals run made Gretchen Bleiler (the SuperPipe gold medalist on Friday) part of a group in pursuit of something great. Competition and the will to crush the other guy will get you geared up, no doubt, but so will collaboration and the prospect of family.

  • Habit of finishing. Take a tumble, miss a jump or a turn -- that's all right, get up and carry it out anyway; give the people a little flavor, have a little fun.

  • Casual, baggy chic. Lots of beautiful folks. (Lots of them. Seriously, maybe it's the light, but I'm telling you, there are some fine-looking people up here. Very fine.) But the real beauty of it is that everyone -- the athletes, the fans, the media -- is in big, bumbly snowsuits (most with the pants hanging hip-hop low) with caps or helmets, and goggles and such. Everybody looks kind of goofy, really, but the key is everybody looks that way. Egalitarianism. Collective soul. Not a lot of prima donna.

    Aspen
    With the mountains of Aspen as the backdrop, any event can seem more awe-inspiring.
  • Philosophical feel for losing. Folks are going all out, no doubt. But especially among the freestylers there's a sense that the art is worth stretching, falling, and even losing, for.

    And I'll just add one more thing, and I know it's going to be tough to duplicate, but I'm telling you, if you can tap into it somehow, it'll be worth your while.

  • The sublime. Mountains. Vistas. Beams of sunlight bouncing off the snow. Air that's crisp. Put the competitors in a drab, dull room with no windows and what they do would be impressive. Put them on the side of a mountain, let the snow scatter and spray off their skis and sleds, and just like that, what they're doing is impressive, it isn't pastoral, it isn't even exhilarating or captivating. It's epic.

    Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.