Monday, February 25, 2002
Snowboarding adds new feel to Olympics
SALT LAKE CITY -- Once a genteel celebration confined to quaint country retreats, the biggest, hippest Winter Olympics in history edged closer to looking like an X Games.
Busting loose with moguls and halfpipes, mosh pits in the medals plaza, and bands like Smash Mouth, Barenaked Ladies and the Foo Fighters rocking the night, these Olympics made an unabashed bid to grab young fans -- at the events and through television
The strategy worked.
Generation Xers and younger fans swelled the crowds to 30,000 at snowboarding, and packed the medals plaza, Bud World, and the streets of downtown Salt Lake City in a 17-day party.
Watching at home, viewership among people ages 18-34 rose 23 percent over Nagano four years ago and 25 percent over the Summer Olympics in Sydney two years ago, NBC said. The biggest jump was among men in that age group, with a 26 percent increase over Nagano.
"It doesn't matter if it's any type of sport, they're the most difficult audience to reach," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC sports.
The X Games, created by ESPN in 1995 as the Extreme Games, emphasize speed and daredevil tricks in nontraditional sports. With events such as acrobatic skateboarding, inline skating and biking, they have been hugely successful with teens and fans in their 20s.
The Olympics, worried about falling behind the times, lured snowboarders to show off their stuff at Nagano. But bad weather, a flap over whether a gold medalist smoked marijuana, and time zone differences conspired to reduce the sport's visibility to American viewers.
That didn't stop snowboarding's boom as the country's fastest growing sport. At these games they became a prime-time sensation with new stars like U.S. halfpipe riders Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas, who won the men's gold, silver and bronze, and American Kelly Clark, who took the women's gold.
X-treme, X-citing, X-hilirating, it comes with its own language.
Here's Powers describing his gold medal ride:
"I dropped in with tons of speed, probably did the biggest backside air I've ever done, then went to a frontside air, then a McTwist, which is kind of like a front flip 540, then a frontside 7 with an Indy grab, to a 720 with an Indy grab, to a stalefish, to a backside 360 mute to a switch McTwist."
Kass performed while listening to a compilation of Metallica, AC/DC, and Black Sabbath through his earphones, hardly the kind of music heard at figure skating.
The moguls and aerials in freestyle skiing added to the X Games look and made for some striking scenes. They also boosted the U.S. medal haul with three silver medals.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge applauded the record 34 medals for the United States, saying it's important to the IOC that the host nation do well. He said the X Games sports were added to the Olympics "to make sure we have sports that are popular, that attract the interest of youth."
That was NBC's thinking, too. The network saw in Sydney that young viewers were tuning out the Olympics. As the Winter Games approached, NBC's marketing emphasized the cooler, faster, more dangerous sports. Mix in live music with top rock bands playing for big crowds in the medals plaza every night, scenes of athletes bodysurfing atop frenzied masses, and the network had a formula for success.
Salt Lake City is the largest city ever to play host to the Winter Games, and the crowds roaming the streets were more akin to those at a Summer Olympics.
The first Winter Games were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924 with figure skating, speedskating, skiing and ice hockey. A total of 14 gold medals were handed out. The number of events grew over the years, but subsequent Winter Olympics were similarly cozy affairs in places like St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Lake Placid, N.Y.
That's been the way of the Winter Olympics ever since, pushed along by the popularity of the X Games.
Even figure skating may be going in that direction. After the judging controversy in the pairs event, the International Skating Union proposed a system that would dump the 6.0 perfect score in favor of one in which a skater would get higher and higher points for more difficult jumps. It's a change that would encourage skaters to go for more quads, more combinations.
Call it an X Games spinoff. Quintuple, anyone?