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Crossing boarders

It was the late, great Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, who said, “When an athlete loses his supreme confidence in his super-masculinity, he is in deep trouble.”

Lombardi’s statement seems strange in retrospect, especially coming from a man who strolled the sidelines in a dapper hat and immaculately pressed overcoat. And although no one would ever question the great Lombardi’s “super-masculinity,” it is true that many of the characteristics commonly attributed to homosexuals ” fashionable, sensitive, nonaggressive ” have always seemed out of place in the sports world.

In fact, homosexuality and sports have long had an uneasy relationship, from the bullying of schoolyard dodge ball to multimillion-dollar coliseums. In a recent documentary, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” examined the interplay between homosexuals and sports. The title of the show, “The Last Closet,” revealed much. To illustrate its point, ESPN focused on the prevalence of suicide attempts by athletes who are “outed” (Ed Gallagher, an offensive lineman for the University of Pittsburgh, and Justin Fashanu, a professional English soccer player, are the two most famous examples).



So, if homosexuality and sports are indeed an oil-and-water mix, the concoction is going to get a real stir this week as Gay and Lesbian Ski Week and ESPN’s X Games converge in Aspen. The X Games, a winter competition of high-octane action sports that last year attracted close to 50,000 spectators and participants to town, will run from Jan. 24-27. Gay Ski Week, a weeklong celebration of homosexual culture that will bring some 4,000 gay skiers to town, begins Jan. 25 and runs until Feb. 1. From Sunday until Tuesday this week, the events will overlap.

Culturally permissive Aspen is no stranger to the mix of sports and homosexuality. For many years the town has been a home and refuge of sorts for the great lesbian tennis star Martina Navratilova. And Gay Ski Week, a sports-oriented event that attracts thousands of gay athletes, has been held in Aspen since 1977.



But there is an even greater reason to look forward to a smooth and dynamic few days.

After all, the “action sports” of X Games have a very different culture than, say, pro football or NASCAR racing ” a result of extreme sports’ origins. For years, X Gamers were on the social periphery, a counterculture struggling to find acceptance beyond its fringe support base. Only recently have they begun to gain the respect of America at large. Now, to be extreme is suddenly to be extremely cool, and the influence of hard-edged sports can be seen everywhere from Mountain Dew commercials to James Bond movies.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it is not unlike the struggle homosexuals have undergone to gain acceptance. For years, the country was more comfortable leaving homosexuals on the fringe ” literally, as New York and San Francisco were for decades the only well-known homosexual havens. Recently, America has begun to realize that many of the gay community’s stereotypical characteristics ” being cultured, educated, vibrant ” are precisely the values she herself endorses.

The term “metrosexual” has been introduced to refer to fashion-conscious, city-savvy straight men who act like homosexuals. In many circles, the term is synonymous with cool.

To say that X Gamers and gay skiers will feel a kinship this week as they cohabit this small community might be going too far, but not altogether in the wrong direction. One commentator suggested that in honor of the two big events, next week be termed “Outsider-In Week.”

Still, the logistics of running two major events simultaneously in a small mountain town may cause problems. Stress on Aspen’s lodging base is a concern for some, as is the competition for top billing in the town’s nightlife.

There are also potential benefits, however, as organizers from both sides anticipate a vibrant confluence of two colorful and exciting crowds. Whatever happens, Aspen will be one happening place early next week.

*****

However excited the public relations professionals from ESPN and the Aspen Gay and Lesbian Community Fund (the organizers of Gay and Lesbian Ski Week) may seem to be running their events simultaneously, the scheduling overlap was a mishap. Behind the scenes, there was much maneuvering to avoid it.

Gay Ski Week traditionally takes place the third week in January. Anticipating a conflict with X Games, Gay Ski Week planners (on the advice of Aspen Skiing Company) moved their 2004 dates to the last week in January, with the understanding that X Games would take place the third week. Planning proceeded, but then ESPN and ABC decided to televise X Games events live and had to move to the fourth week in January to accommodate the TV schedule. By then, planning and promotion for Gay Ski Week had already begun, and the overlap became unavoidable.

Paul Rossi, executive director of Aspen’s Gay and Lesbian Community Fund, puts on a brave face. He points out that the two events have overlapped before. Still, to alleviate concerns, Gay Ski Week has “back-loaded” its events to encourage greater participation in its final weekend (Jan. 31-Feb. 1, after X Games).

“That our two events are running at the same time can really help each other,” Rossi said. “For us, it can bolster our early-week participation, which is traditionally slow. It will allow our guests to see some cool, non-mainstream events.”

Melissa Goullotti, the X Games spokeswoman for ESPN, also sees the overlap as mutually beneficial. Although X Games is foremost a serious action sports competition, she said, the event is also famous for the atmosphere and nightlife it creates.

“When you have a lot of stuff going on, like X Games and Gay Ski Week, it only helps enhance the party atmosphere,” she said. “This place is going to be rocking.”

*****

That Aspen will be a hot spot this week is undeniable, but many fear the town will become overcrowded.

“The potential for a lodging crunch was something we certainly worried about,” Rossi said. “It was a concern, but from what I hear it’s working out fine.”

Indeed, most hoteliers say they are thrilled by the overlap. Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, which books numerous Aspen-Snowmass vacation packages, claims the simultaneity of the events will actually help Aspen’s lodging community. According to Tomcich, trends over the last few years indicate that attendees of the two events tend to opt for different ends of the lodging scale, thereby ensuring that the entire spectrum of Aspen beds will be filled.

“Gay Ski Week participants tend to go for upscale accommodation ” fancy hotels, private condominiums, etc.,” Tomcich said. “It’s the opposite for the X Games crowd. They tend to look more for affordable lodging options. In that regard, the two groups meld well.”

Steven Holt, public relations director for the Hotel Jerome, couldn’t be happier with the timing. He claims that most of the high-end X Games crowd ” ESPN media moguls, sponsors and the like ” tend to check out by midday Sunday, exactly when the Gay Ski Week crowd starts to check in.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better pattern,” Holt said. “No business has been displaced and we look forward to a very strong 10-day period.”

Some hoteliers do not share Holt’s enthusiasm. Peter Mackellar, office manager at the middle-range Limelite Lodge, says common sense indicates that splitting up the events would have been more beneficial.

“If I know I’m going to be full during X Games and during Gay Ski Week, why would I want the events to overlap?” Mackellar asked. “I lose two days of capacity business. I would say there’s no room in this town for both events in the same period.”

*****

Whatever the lodging outcome, the real hot-button issue will be the social overlap between the two crowds. Will the boarders cross borders? Will the same-sex couples share the town with those who aren’t the same?

Many of Gay Ski Week’s most ostentatious events ” including the “Drag Downhill” contest, in which male contestants are judged not on speed but female-fashion sense ” will run after X Games is finished. Still, the entire week carries a feeling of indiscretion and misrule, of outrageous outfits and bawdy behavior.

Many insiders denounce the “carnival” image of Gay Ski Week, however, claiming the week is less about show than about sports. In fact, Jack Johnson, a member of the Aspen Gay and Lesbian Community Fund board of directors, believes Ski Week is closer to an action sports week than many realize.

“This isn’t your father’s gay ski week,” Johnson said. “The guys and girls who come up for this week ski hard and board hard. They are excited about X Games.”

Ski Week director Rossi believes the similarities between the two crowds are far-reaching. This year will mark the largest winter X Games competition in its eight-year history. ESPN broadcasts will reach 110 million homes internationally. Simultaneously, Gay Ski Week organizers look forward to their most successful event, with a 100 percent increase in sponsor dollars from last year. Both events are hitting the big-time, gaining the respect they have long yearned after.

Rossi, a straight, former Sony executive, embodies Gay Ski Week’s cross into the mainstream. He says the time is ripe for the term “counterculture” to lose its prefix.

“X Gamers have fought hard for their identity, and X Games is now a mainstream event,” Rossi said. “The gay community has had the same experience. Metrosexuality is in. Two reality TV shows focusing on homosexuals, ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ and ‘Boy Meets Boy’ have had huge success. It’s exciting for both events to be growing at the same time.”

As for X Gamers, the feeling of a long overdue acceptance also dominates. Ten years ago, when the first summer X Games were held, snowboarders couldn’t even board Aspen Mountain. The meteoric rise of action sports over such a short period has meant that successful X Game athletes honed their craft at a time when mainstream culture believed it warranted alienation, not admiration. Travis McLain, a former X Games gold medalist who will provide live commentary this year, has seen firsthand the gradual respect earned by X Gamers. He believes that, as a result, if ever there was a sports crowd that could accept homosexuals in close proximity, it would be X Gamers.

“Everyone’s pretty mellow,” McLain said. “There might be a few redneck snowmobilers that can’t deal with the gay dudes, but on the whole it won’t be a problem. We have to be accepting, we were made to be, because back when we were learning our stuff we were the ones being made fun of. When most people started out, they were the ones that were different.”

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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