Japan sends large press contingent to games
The Aspen Times
It’s no mystery that the Winter X Games possess a major international flavor.
A look at the past X Games competitor list shows entrants from North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and more.
This year, a strong contingent of Japanese media is at the X Games because of the youngest athlete at the competition, 15-year-old snowboard superpipe competitor Ayumu Hirano.
Naoto Suzuki works for NHK Japan, Japanese public television. He pointed out that there were three Japanese newspapers and three television stations at the X Games because of Hirano, a budding X Games superstar.
Hirano took home a silver medal at the 2013 Winter X Games in the men’s snowboard superpipe, with only Shaun White able to top the teenager.
The Japanese press sees Hirano as a potential multiple medal contender at the Sochi Olympics, and he was the favorite for the 2014 X Games snowboard superpipe gold medal.
“There are other athletes we’re watching,” Suzuki said. “But Hirano was our main focus.”
Hirano dropped out of the X Games competition in advance of Thursday’s elimination round, citing a foot injury suffered during practice.
In a statement made on ESPN, Hirano’s agent, Carl Harris, said it was a tough call to pull Hirano from the X Games, but it was the right call.
“Ayumu sprained his ankle a week and a half ago,” Harris said. “We were hoping that it would get better, and he practiced the last couple days, but it’s just not working. Any kind of solid impact is just giving him excruciating pain. We made the decision along with the Japanese national team that it’s best to get him back home to Japan to rest up for Sochi rather than risking further injury.”
What makes Hirano even more special is the lack of halfpipes in Japan. There is only one true Olympic-caliber halfpipe to train in, located in Hokkaido, one of Japan’s most northern islands and home to some of the best snow in Japan.
That’s also a big reason why the sport is yet to take off in Japan.
“It’s getting there,” Suzuki said. “But it’s not quite there yet. Access to the sport is limited.”
Danny Chi, the director of communications for the X Games, thinks winter action sports, like those at the Winter X Games, will continue to gain popularity in Japan.
“There’s a uniqueness to these types of sports, like snowboarding and skiing, that resonates with the youth culture,” Chi said. “The Japanese youth culture and Japanese culture and style in general — well, they have a lot of style. Pipe riding actually made its debut at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and that’s certainly a discipline that they’re more familiar with and can now relate to. I feel that’s the discipline the Japanese riders have gotten the most success from, and they’ve done it with their own unique style.”
Perhaps the biggest impression on the Japanese press corps has been the actual X Games venue at Buttermilk Mountain. Suzuki said he’s never seen a sporting event held with such a festive atmosphere.
“It’s amazing here,” Suzuki said. “There is some serious sports competition going on, but at the same time, it’s like a party. I’ve never seen this type of an event in Japan. It is kind of cold weather, but the fans are having so much fun. It’s more like a big concert than a sporting event.”
Suzuki thinks the X Games would be a big success in Japan. He pointed to the crew from the Tokyo Broadcasting System and said they’re attempting to send live feeds back to Japan despite the 14-hour time difference.
Yuji Tokiwa is a local coordinator from Japan for the Tokyo Broadcasting System and translated for Motoki Tanaka, a director at the company. Tanaka said it was important for the Japanese press to be in Aspen because it will be broadcasting the Olympic competition from Sochi.
He also said it eventually will help the popularity of winter sports like the halfpipe in Japan.
“If Hirano does well in Sochi, it will help build participation in the sport with both men and women,” Tanaka said.
Tanaka also thinks the X Games would work well in Japan.
“We’d love to hold the X Games in Japan,” he said. “It would be very exciting for our people. ESPN should have the X Games in Japan.”
Chi said that ESPN certainly wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the X Games someday being held in Japan, but with a new five-year contract in Aspen, that’s where the ESPN focus remains.
Jeff Hanle, the director of public relations for Aspen Skiing Co., said that while the international media aren’t here to write travel features, the images of the Aspen area they send to their outlets is amazing exposure for Skico.
“We have press from all over the world here for the X Games,” Hanle said. “When you have a whole generation of young riders and skiers in Japan and they see the incredible features from Aspen and Snowmass, that can’t help but do great things for us. That’s part of the reason we’re so tight with the X Games — it sends a message around the world that we couldn’t pay to do.”
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Mountain Rescue Aspen is expanding its education efforts to try to keep people safe in the backcountry during winters and summers. It will host a workshop on Dec. 8 titled, “How to Plan a Backcountry Tour.”