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X Games keep it challenging

Jimi Tomer catches air while on a practice run for the men's snowboard slopestyle at the X Games in Aspen, Colo.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Jimi Tomer catches air while on a practice run for the men's snowboard slopestyle at the X Games in Aspen, Colo. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
John Marshall Associated Press

ASPEN, Colo. – The first Winter X Games included an event that had racers barreling down the mountain in homemade contraptions built around snow shovels. That’s right, the so-called world’s premier action sports event featured what amounted to a soap box derby on snow.

Not every idea has been a hit, but part of what had made the Winter X Games so successful is that the athletes aren’t the only ones taking risks. By trying out new events and constantly tweaking old ones, Winter X organizers have kept the event fresh and challenging.

In the what’s-the-next-big-thing world of action sports, that’s all that matters.

“We tried a couple things that didn’t necessarily work and didn’t last that long, but that’s kind of what our company is all about,” said ESPN’s Ron Semiao, founder of the X Games. “We take risks, and we’re aggressive in terms of doing things that please our viewers.”

It seems to be working.

Since the first competition at Big Bear, Calif., in 1997, the Winter X Games has continually searched for ways to push the limits for a group of athletes who are always searching for the ultimate test. When this year’s event gets under way in Aspen with more than 230 athletes from around the globe, it will be bigger, higher and faster than ever before.

For four days, starting today, snowboarders will sail dozens of feet over the superpipe walls, motorcycles will backflip 90 feet through the air and snowmobiles will careen over hills and around berms.

More than 40,000 fans – many with tattoos, colored hair and multiple piercings – are expected at Buttermilk Mountain, adding a touch of mosh pit to one of the country’s ritziest spots.

Live television, some of it under the lights, will add to the party atmosphere and – of course – there’ll be plenty of suspense as fans wait to see the latest wipeout, face plant or even broken bone.

“Definitely you’ll get all that, exciting racing to the finish and someone cartwheeling down the track,” said snowmobile racer Blair Morgan, a Winter Xer since 1998. “Everything’s tied in together and that’s what makes it so fun.”

Organizers have kept up the buzz by trying to stay ahead of the game. They’ve done it by checking the pulse of the athletes. If an event doesn’t seem to fit the vibe of Winter X or becomes stale or too easy, the athletes are often the first to complain. The organizers have done a good job of listening and have tweaked the lineup over the years to keep challenging the athletes, making for better viewing.

That’s the reason super modified shovel racing was ditched after the first crash-filled year and mountain bike racing, another first-year event, was replaced after four years by the flying motorcycles of Moto X.

Oddly enough, the Winter X Games didn’t have any skiing the first year. That’s changed with the increased popularity of free-skiing. Skiers are now whirling off the walls of the superpipe just like the snowboarders.

And even the events that have been there since the early days, particularly snowboarding, have remained edgy because the athletes keep finding new ways to flip and twist through the air.

“The athletes are the ones who have progressed their sport and continued to push the limits and continued to innovate in terms of the tricks they do,” Semiao said. “If you look at courses in the first Winter X Games, it probably wouldn’t be considered very challenging right now. Things are just bigger and wider and longer, and are made that way because of the incredible tricks the guys and girls are doing.”

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