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Paul Andersen: Aspen’s glaring contradictions

During a lull in the Wintersköl fireworks, as a pall of acrid smoke swept down Little Nell, my frugal and practical wife turned to me and asked: “I wonder how much all of this cost and whether there isn’t a better use for that money.”

I began to ponder how many thousands of dollars were burned up during the pyrotechnic display, and all previous displays? Enough to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, educate the ignorant, save a few hundred acres of rain forest? Enough to fix the Maroon Creek bridge?

“Nobody cares,” I responded as another bomb burst overhead and the crowd exulted. Thinking about it later, I found a nagging parallel with the Bush administration’s recent announcement about a new space program targeting Mars.



Al Gore reacted sagely by saying that President Bush is looking to space while ignoring Earth. Are we doing the same in Aspen? Is a show of fireworks really worth the smoke, noise and expense?

If fireworks are suspect, then what about the X Games? The overall budget for this extravaganza could substantially boost the treasury of a third world country. Would anyone dare equate the X Games with Xcess?



Not if you’re an advertiser. The X Games promotes the sponsors who put them on. The bottom line is to attract television viewers, bombard them with ads and lure them into buying your stuff. Such is the zeitgeist of commercial capitalism in the sports arena.

Criticizing the X Games is not a popular notion because people love a spectacle, especially when it involves lights, cameras, super screen TVs, rich corporate sponsors, celebrity athletes and product giveaways. Spectacles bring people to Aspen in droves.

Perhaps it’s just jealousy on my part, the sour grapes of a baby boomer who witnessed the advent of freestyle skiing and aerials in the ’70s. What a difference 30 years makes: Instead of a novel sport creating a commercial media buzz, now a commercial media buzz creates a novel sport.

The Aspen winter economy and the ski industry are desperate for this kind of attention. They need something, anything to breathe life into a static market. Hyper-stimulated by continuous, 360-degree action, the X Games is the spawn of the hyper-stimulated television and video age. It is an antidote to cultural boredom.

The community gets behind it because it’s deemed good for business, and the younger set loves it because it showcases their favorite sports heroes. For one glorious week, Buttermilk becomes the Mount Olympus for a new generation of snow gods.

Decrying the mass consumerism represented by the X Games is heresy because consumer excess is non-negotiable. Mass hysteria trumps self-constraint and bolsters our conspicuously consumptive way of life. Materialism is sacrosanct. We fight wars to protect our right to consume the world’s resources.

Perhaps fireworks and the X Games are essential to community spirit and the local economy. If so, they define us in terms not altogether laudable. Fireworks fuel a reckless euphoria that depicts our nationalism, and the X Games promotes ad revenues and a protracted tailgate party.

Promoters see such entertainment as the business of a resort town, which markets image and spectacle. The hype of the X Games falls into that category, as does the mystique of monster homes, Hummers, fur coats and private jets. It’s all image and spectacle.

Is our esprit de corps so cheaply bought? Is our collective consciousness so frivolous? Aspen’s cultural idealism seems strangely out of context with commercial dross. They may ultimately need each other, but the contradictions are bigger than a double sparkling starburst over Aspen Mountain or a 540 Crippler at Buttermilk’s superpipe.

Paul Andersen’s column appears every Monday.


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