Wired for Winter X
January 22, 2007
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” The Summer and Winter X Games are the largest television productions ESPN puts on; add to that the difficulty of snow and cold temperatures, and Aspen’s Winter X Games is a logistical Everest.
It’s not just constructing 100-foot snowmobile jumps, a bridge racers will pass under and a superpipe with 17-foot walls. Those seem to be the minor details compared with bringing the sports to a national prime-time television audience.
Prime-time means nighttime, and that means lights so powerful they would blow every fuse in Aspen if they were hooked up to the grid. Every little idea seems to lead to something much larger, as broadcasting a night event means dragging 20 electricity generators onto the mountain so lights can illuminate every jump.
But before cable is set under ski runs and around trees to 80 camera positions, before 180 phone lines are set up and 475 walkie-talkies fired up, planners must choose the events.
Unlike the Olympics, where new sports take years to become established, the X Games seeks out the newest, and often the craziest, events while holding onto the ones that have grown and matured. It’s testament to the X Games bringing sports into the mainstream that 28 Winter X Games 10 athletes also competed last year at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
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In order to maintain the edge, this year’s Winter X Games deleted one event and added three. Mainstays like skiing and snowboard superpipe easily made the cut. Out the door is Moto X. Dirt bikes will no longer grace the snow at Buttermilk. It’s not that doing backflips on dirt bikes is no longer extreme – just that doing it on a jump of ice tempts death a little more than it tempts life.
“It was almost more about survival than it was about progression of the sport,” said X Games director of sports and competition Tim Reed, who is in charge of choosing new events.
Taking the place of Moto X is snowmobile freestyle, which very well might tempt fate as much or more than dirt bikes. Read: a variety of jumps ranging from 45 to more than 100 feet long on which 10 riders will test abilities jumping 500-pound snowmobiles.
Also new is a snowboard best trick showdown on a jump that is shaping up to be a 70-footer. Last but not least is mono-skiercross, where the top disabled sit-skiers in the world will compete on a course with banked turns and tabletop jumps.
Next, it’s up to planners to create a design for Buttermilk that encompasses the chosen events. Everything down to the mobile television studios, 32,600 feet of temporary fencing and 80 on-hill camera positions are planned out using computer mapping.
At the beginning of December, Anthony Dittman, the Winter X Games’ associate director of operations, comes out with a crew and a tape measure.
“Winter is not an exact science,” Dittman said. “There are always changes.”
Dittmann’s department coordinates the on-hill camera positions. They build towers the size of small office buildings from thousands of pounds of scaffolding that have to be placed perfectly in order to avoid blocking the view of a landing or obscuring a course. Last year, crews assembled and disassembled one tower three times before they found the perfect spot, Dittmann said.
“You get all the towers, and then you need dressing,” Dittmann said. “Change one thing and it changes four things behind it.”
Perhaps his greatest headache, however, is figuring out how to wire the cameras for live TV. From the base of Buttermilk, a massive bunch of thick television cable runs out of ESPN’s three $12 million portable studios and up onto the mountain. The cable spreads out under runs, up onto towers and around trees so cameramen can arrive and plug into a direct satellite feed.
As the mechanics come together, the athletes are being chosen. Committees on each sport, consisting of experts in the field (such as magazine editors) watch the major results of big competitions closely and invite athletes in three waves.
The first invitations go to athletes at the top of their fields, the absolute shoo-ins. Later, a big win in January can mean one of the final X Games slots.
“We want to try to choose the top people,” Reed said. “Our goal is to invite the premier athletes in the world.”
It can be more difficult to choose athletes depending on how long a sport has been in the lineup and on the size of the pool of candidates. Reed said something like snowboarding slopestyle is very hard to narrow down to only 20 boarders.
On the television side of things, everything has to be ready before the first competition begins. Templates and previously recorded feature stories can air any time.
The 50-plus cameramen are divided into three groups that focus on the different areas: pipe and slopestyle, X-course and snowmobiles. Each group has one of the mobile studios in Buttermilk’s parking lot that filters the images into live TV. Animation gurus provide mockups of jumps and tricks.
“The courses are still being built,” said X Games coordinating producer Phil Orlins. “So on Tuesday night they start building the 3D animations of every feature.”
The computer guys are ready for just about anything. For instance, Swedish skiing phenom Jon Olsson busted out a new trick – the Kangaroo Flip – that earned him gold at the U.S. Freeskiing Open at Copper Mountain on Friday.
Though many of the more traditional tricks have already been illustrated, experts could animate a new trick in less than a day, even if it is a double backflip with an off-axis 540-degree rotation to a switch landing.
“We will talk in detail about a Kangaroo Flip, but it needs to make sense to someone who doesn’t ski slopestyle,” Orlins said. “We want to help people feel comfortable watching this. That’s how an audience expands.”
Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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