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A history of X

Tim Mutrie
Tommy Czeschin goes for a big switch air for the crowd at the X Games superpipe in 2002. Aspen times photo.
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Skiers weren’t invited to the inaugural ESPN Winter X Games.No, the very first Winter X, held at Snow Summit Mountain Resort in Big Bear Lake, Calif., in 1997 featured disciplines like ice climbing, snow mountain bike racing, super-modified shovel racing, some kind of “crossover multisport event,” according to an ESPN history, and, yes, a budding sport called snowboarding.Skiers were included for Winter X Two in Crested Butte, in 1998. Aspen’s Chris Davenport competed and remembers it well.”That first skiercross course was super gnarly and dangerous. It was really out there. Who can forget Tyler Williams wrecking big off a jump and dislocating his hip?” recalled Davenport, who won the 24 Hours of Aspen with Williams, also of Aspen.Nowadays, Davenport is entering his fifth X Games as a skiing commentator for ESPN, and Williams is still racing skiercross.Looking back, Davenport has to chuckle at the evolution from stone-age X – as the so-called “new school” revolution clumsily, at times, took hold – to today’s Winter X. ESPN calls it, and much of the new-school world recognizes it as, the “premier action sports championship.”

Thousands of fans are expected on hand for the events this weekend at Buttermilk, and millions more will be watching on ESPN and affiliates.”To say it’s big time is probably understating things,” Davenport said. “Take a look around. The pulse and the heart of the whole action sports industry is here, and X Games is why.”But it wasn’t always that way,” he said. “It was primitive, even if we didn’t know it then.”After modest beginnings at Snow Summit – then the home hill of now-world-renowned pipes and parks shaper Chris “Gunny” Gunnarson, who has designed all the X courses since – Winter X shifted to Crested Butte for a two-year run.

And then it was off to Mount Snow, Vt., for another two-year stay. Winter X at Mt. Snow saw the debut of snowboarding superpipe, in 2000, and then Moto X big air on snow, in 2001.Aspen landed the X Games at Buttermilk in 2002 – at first for just another two-year contract. Fans quickly embraced the Buttermilk five-top circus, with all the events within a swiveling-eye’s view from the base area, and an easy bus ride from town or points downvalley.ESPN estimated some 36,000 fans showed up for the first Aspen X Games; then 48,000-plus showed up in 2003. Both games featured much of the same action fare in store for this weekend, including ski superpipe and ski slopestyle, which debuted at the X Games here in 2002.But then came last year and a whole new television schedule, and a new contract extending the X Games’ stay through 2007. Instead of re-broadcasting the games after the fact, as had been done in years past, ESPN broadcast most of the events live, including several marquee contests like snowboarding superpipe during prime-time hours. ESPN’s Sportscenter set up shop for the first time and the event drew an Aspen-record 66,000 fans to the site.Additionally, free outdoor concerts and other goings on downtown – namely The Offspring – brought the free-for-all (literally, the X Games are free) atmosphere from Buttermilk to Aspen. Fans ate it up.”Over the years, sports have come and gone, but X Games’ ability to stick with it is the real defining thing,” said Deric Gunshor, an ESPN X Games intern in 1999 and the games’ marketing manager by the time he left, in 2004, in order to live in Aspen full time. He’s now the event marketing manager for the Aspen Skiing Co.

“It’s really stayed fresh and on top of new things within the sports,” Gunshor said.This year, with free concerts planned for Friday and Saturday nights in Aspen – scheduled after all the competitions are over at Buttermilk, another notable improvement over years past when conflicts existed – Gunshor expects the scene to be nuts.Well, that’s not exactly what he said.”It’s gonna be insane,” Gunshor said. “I think it’s like a part of life in Aspen. You’ll hear people talking X Games this, X Games that, and it seems like it’s already been fully integrated. And now that people will be going from the events at Buttermilk to the free concerts in Aspen, it’s going to be even better.””Everybody’s gotten better at doing what they’re doing,” Davenport said. “Whether it’s event production, the marketing or the athletes, they’ve all learned how to do this very well in Aspen and at Buttermilk.

“Over the years, as the athletes evolved in their sports – and the sports do to, with bigger and harder tricks – the X Games have always evolved as well to make sure they have the best jumps and best courses to showcase their skills.”And,” Davenport added, “in terms of skiercross, the courses have thankfully changed. It’s safer, for starters.”Another reason it’s unique and cool is that it brings together all the different sports. Skiers never hang out with Moto X guys or snowmobilers, and yet they may share sponsors. And it’s kind of created an X Games family that’s bigger than all of this.”Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com


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