Arielle Gold, Birk Irving dish on a fanless X Games Aspen 2021 during COVID-19

Next month’s ESPN event will be in a ’bubble’ with testing and contact tracing

Antonio Olivero/Summit Daily
Birk Irving of Winter Park drops into the X Games superpipe at Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen in January.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

FRISCO — What makes X Games Aspen special in many ways is the atmosphere.

Fans from all across the state, country and world — many with their ski and snowboard gear in tow — board public buses packed to the gills and snake their way through security lines. With a Coachella-like feel, X Games isn’t just about sports. It’s a festival where people shop at vendors, listen to live pop music and, of course, watch the world’s best skiers and snowboarders soar into the crisp January night sky.

But amid an ongoing pandemic, X Games formally announced Tuesday that the 2021 event will take place without fans.

Arielle Gold, a 2018 Olympic halfpipe bronze medalist, was not surprised or disappointed. Like most everything else in 2020, it is what it is.

“Obviously, we will miss the crowd, but it is great to see that they are still trying to create opportunities for athletes to compete this season, despite the circumstances,” Gold said. “The fans are arguably one of my favorite parts about competing in X Games. The environment is electric, and it truly makes you want to put down your best run possible.”

Despite the COVID-19 regulations, which will make the event as “responsible as possible,” Gold said she believes X Games will cater to a quality contest for riders like her and American 2018 Olympic gold medalists Shaun White and Chloe Kim.

White and Kim, who have trained this month at the U.S. Ski & Snowboard official training site at Copper Mountain Resort, will drop into the superpipe in Aspen after long layoffs for each: White for the first time since winning 2018 Olympic gold and Kim after a 2019-20 season sabbatical to focus on starting college at Princeton University.

“We’ve been fortunate in that the U.S. team has created as many opportunities as possible to be on snow throughout the fall and early season,” Gold said. “So I think it’s safe to say that everyone will be able to pick up right where they left off last season.”

Gold — the younger sister of 2020 X Games men’s snowboard superpipe session gold medalist Taylor Gold — is especially excited for the Jan. 29-31 event after she did not compete this year. In 2020, X Games opted for a jam format without numerical scoring, which Gold thinks will cater to a higher and more varied level of riding if organizers continue with that format next month.

“I think the judging could be a bit harder for people to follow in that capacity,” Gold said. “But ultimately, I do think the jam format caters to a more creative and progressive event.”

U.S. halfpipe pro team freeskier Birk Irving said he enjoyed this year’s jam format scoring, saying it “brought out the best in everyone and showcased how creative you can be in a halfpipe.” Now that the new format “makes more sense to everyone,” he said he thinks fans watching this season’s event on TV will see “a new level of halfpipe skiing.”

As for hosting the event without fans, he said it’s “the only way to do it considering the current state of the world.”

“Being that X Games will be the first event back, it will be extremely nerve-wracking to jump back into the contest scene, but it will all come back,” Irving said. “We have all been informed about the COVID protocols, and it will all be very safe.”