X games anachronism

In my younger days, I used to participate in a smattering of “extreme” sports, to the point that I was competitive in one event. As I watched the resurgence of these sports (mostly due to the X Games) there was always one aspect that rang false. Extreme sports largely sprung out of a “rebel” ethos, where the kid that hates team sports finds solitude doing something by him/herself, so the idea of organizing sporting events around them was always a little bit silly. Specifically though, I noticed very early on that ESPN would play up the country of origin of performers, in an attempt to mimic the Olympics. Instead of atheletes being treated as individuals, viewers were given easy ways to categorize everyone based on origin.

If you’ve ever been in a bike or skate contest, you’d know how laughable it was to make strong distinctions about where people were from. Perhaps it’s because I was raised in the post-hippy 70′s era, but it doesn’t matter where you are from, it only matters what you do on your bike or skateboard. Back when I rode, I had friends in europe, some were from down the street, some came from rich parents, while others lived in the projects and none of that mattered. I used to love competing in bike contests because it meant seeing my friends from out of town, and sometimes that out-of-town was New York, and sometimes it was London. Incidentally, it’s a lot like web conferences feel to me these days, where the best part of an event is catching up with old friends you don’t see too often.

I’ve always ignored ESPN’s insistence on maintaining medal counts by country and associating flags with participants during medal times, assuming they had some old-school sports people in the production booth that thought today’s audience still cared about those kinds of things. But now they’ve gone all the way with the concept in their Global X Games. The entire event is organized around an Us vs. Them mindset, where Rune Glifberg isn’t a great vert skater with tons of style, he’s your opponent from the Europe team and I’m supposed to cheer against him. I’m supposed to hope that Dave Mirra beats Jaime Bestwick in bike vert because I want to chant USA! USA! USA!

What a load of complete crap. I don’t think of Bob Burnquist as a great Brazillian skater, or Tony Hawk as an American skateboard legend, they’re simply great skaters and athletes. I won’t even get into the fact that they both currently reside (and have spent many years living) in Southern California, as do most “international” extreme sports athletes.

I can see how the average Olympics viewer might not be able to know when they see great shot puts or hurdle races, and how it might be handy to think “oh, there’s an American in this one, go american guy!”, but I don’t see the need for such classification when extreme sports produce athletes and events that are so different. I think anyone can look at a guy pulling a backflip on a 250 lb. motorcycle across a 90 foot gap and say wow, regardless of whether he comes from your country or not, just as someone pulling a 900 on a bike or skateboard would elicit the same response.

The obvious upside of the extreme sports movement is that it has brought in lots of fans and money for the participants. The athletes are the antithesis of your traditional “team player” and they now have a place to excel and succeed. The new generation has a new avenue to professionally grow their talents.

But along the way, instead of bucking past traditions, ESPN is trying their hardest to mimic the most short-sighted traditions of all, to bring teams and national organization to something that existed in opposition to all that. I’ll watch it this year, but this event smacks of the new generation’s sports wedged into the outdated model of the past generation’s ideals.