How’s this for ultimate irony – of all of the sports that I’ve covered in the last four months, it was an Action Sports event that offered the least in the way of…well, action. When I originally penciled the X Games Moto X competition into the IGTS Tour I expected loud. I expected annoying. I didn’t expect boring – but that’s what I got from my stint in the studio audience at the most tightly packaged and mass-marketed “counter-culture” gathering on the planet.
Dolly Parton once famously said “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap”, and the X Games is living testament to that. It takes a gargantuan effort to pull off a full slate of events that ESPN would have you believe sprang up virally amongst the dudes down in the local 7-11 parking lot.
Viewed from the ground level, the X Games has grown way beyond a concept – eclipsing even franchise status. As someone who is familiar with the Convention Center area of downtown L.A., it was a shock to the senses to arrive there and find that a small city had been built within the city. Full stadiums had magically appeared where only a couple of weeks ago there were streets and plazas. And inside the Staples Center itself, where I was used to seeing a basketball court, there was now the equivalent of a vacant dirt lot.
I knew in advance that Classic Party Rentals’ sports event division was playing a major role in the buildout of the X Games venue, so I knew that it would be ambitious. But if I thought that the stadium that Classic built on Miami’s South Beach during Super Bowl Week was impressive, it was nothing compared to this. See, sand tends to be pretty flexible about where you can move it. Buildings and streets in the country’s second largest city…not so much. It was a true engineering marvel.
If only the Moto X competition had been that impressive…
I shared with you previously my disillusionment with the amount of drama-killing dead time that we were subjected to throughout the competition. Today let’s talk about the integrity of the event.
“Stealth marketing” was the phrase that came to mind when I first arrived on site, but as the evening wore on I came to realize that there was nothing even remotely “stealthy” about this event, right down to the shameless plugs provided none-too-subtly by the cyclists themselves.
One particularly inelegant scenario occurred during a close-up shot of one of the riders upon completion of his heat. Once he was cued that he was on camera, he extended front and center into the picture a water bottle bearing the Monster energy drink logo, and then gave an animated wave – exposing a Target logo on the palm of his glove. And if you still didn’t get it, he pointed to the logo with his other hand.
As variations of this scenario played out repeatedly, I half-expected the riders to join in a chorus line and break into song with the jingles of the companies that sponsor them.
I’m guessing that even the inveterate hawkers among NASCAR drivers would’ve blushed had they witnessed this advertisement disguised as a competition.
I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that the entire X Games franchise was originally built around attracting the kids who were continuously being shooed out of public parking lots with their skateboards because they were too scruffy and anti-establishment. And now the next generation of that kid is a walking, talking billboard.
Can I please have some sullen, uncommunicative attitude here?!? For God’s sake, some of the competitors didn’t even appear to have any tattoos! Where’s the modern-day rebel without a cause? The only cause that I could detect was that of getting people to guzzle gallons of heavily caffeinated energy drinks.
But enough about that – let’s cut to the action…
The first couple of motocross runs were really impressive, as I started to get a feel for just how hard this sport was. After that though, every run was the same, down to a variation on two or three themes on what the rider would do in mid-air coming off of a ramp.
No matter what they did though, it elicited a Pavlovian “ooooohhhhhh” from the crowd – almost as if they had forgotten that just a few minutes earlier they had seen basically the same thing. It was like 18,000 four-year olds screaming “Do it again!” over and over and over. And I thought I was easily amused.
In the eight-man finals bracket of the Speed & Style competition, I expected more diversity in what I would see, given that these would be actual one-on-one races as opposed to solo rides. You can usually count on the unexpected when athletes go head to head – even without motor vehicles involved. I looked forward to some sparks, both actual and figurative.
What actually transpired though, was that in all but one race, one rider jumped out to an immediate lead and increased it throughout – resulting essentially in separate stunt rides, each of which was pretty predictable. If I had an ounce of cynicism in me, I might think that it was actually arranged that way…like when one rider wiped out and his opponent’s bike mysteriously stalled and wouldn’t start until the other guy had caught up with him. Nahhh – had to have been pure coincidence.
Against this backdrop of sketchy authenticity, one light shone brightly. Since I actually do live in a cave, thank you very much, I had never heard of Travis Pastrana. Then again I haven’t watched MTV since they did away with the “M” part. But I learned quickly, both at the event and later when I did a little more research on him.
This 26-year old from Annapolis, MD is the real action sports deal, and he has earned every ounce of the adulation heaped upon him. And on this night, he didn’t just win the competition, he toyed with it.
In each head-to-head race, he jumped out to a huge lead coming down the very first stretch of moguls, and was virtually riding alone from that point forward. It almost seemed like he never landed after taking off of the upslope of the first mogul – he just floated in the air until reaching a convenient landing point. And in the gold medal race, he almost lapped his competitor despite the race being only 3 ½ laps in total!
I sincerely appreciated him closing out the competition in such overwhelming fashion, as it gave me a chance to get out of the gate quickly in an action sport of my own – that of beating everyone to the parking garage and onto the Harbor Freeway.
Which turned out to be easy to do, given the 17 Red Bulls I had felt strangely compelled to drink during the event.
Goofy. But fun. That was the original X Games. I’m not sure that the hordes of people that descended on L.A. Live over the weekend know that “X” is (or at least was) shorthand for “extreme”, what with that word being sooo before the millennium.
But that’s what it was. In the mid-90’s, some forward-thinking sports production types at ESPN (yes, I know that I’m bordering on oxymoronic territory there) decided to take a chance on a new concept for filling hours of air time in the deadest sports month of the year.
“Why not,” they reasoned, “hold an Olympic-style competition featuring the types of sports engaged in by those kids who…well, who aren’t quite right.”
Rumor has it that it was originally going to be called the Jeff Spicoli Games, but the producers of Fast Times at Ridgemont High wouldn’t license the name. OK, I made that up. But a partial line-up of the sports that made up the first Extreme Games (as it was called then) reveals how eclectic the event was when it debuted: Bungee Jumping. Sky Surfing. Sport Climbing. Street Luge.
Seriously – Street Luge. I actually happened to be living in Providence, Rhode Island when the first Extreme Games site was being built out and I remember being alternately fascinated and horrified at the route chosen for the Street Luge course. I couldn’t imagine anyone surviving a crash. And I wondered…where exactly does onepractice Street Luge?
But what was once delightfully off-beat and viral is now so contrived and tightly packaged you would assume that even the most naïve of kids would recognize that the X Games is one big infomercial. Indeed, if you look up the X Games on Wikipedia, the first sub-heading that greets you is “Economics”. Enough said.
But evidently they’re OK with it, as I learned when I ventured into downtown L.A. over the weekend.
My first instinct for my coverage of this event was to say that the Moto X (Moto X…Moto Cross…get it?) competition that I witnessed was no more a sport than the Real World television show is…well, the real world. But then I realized that this was a tremendous disservice to the athletes involved. Because what they do is amazingly athletic.
If you are a motocross racer – and especially a motocross stunt racer, you absolutely, positively can NOT mail it in on practice. If you decide to slack off in preparation for a competition, you might as well spend the time you saved by adding every ambulance service in town onto your speed dial list.
These athletes are dedicated to both their craft, and to putting on a good show. And it was a good show. For the bite-sized pieces of action that were interspersed with looooooong stretches of staring into space. Make no mistake about it – this was not a sporting event that ESPN happened to be covering. This was a made-for-television event, for which we the public were a studio audience. How else do you explain this scheduling:
• At 5:30 the qualifying round for the Moto X Speed & Style competition began, with the objective of narrowing the field of 11 racers down to 8 finalists. Each cyclist did just one run.
• At 6:20 the qualifying round was concluded.
• At 7:40, the first quarterfinal heat began.
For the mathematically challenged, that is a break in the action of exactly 80 minutes.
And we were held captive. Literally every exit door of the Staples Center was clearly labeled “No Re-Entry”. If you had a notion to stroll through the street X-Po or simply go for a walk in the beautiful evening sun during the break, you forfeited the right to see the finals.
Why the time gap? Because ESPN shifted coverage to a skateboarding venue. And since this X Games was billed as All Live All The Time, we had to wait until the skateboard competition had concluded.
It’s not like we had nothing to keep us occupied though. For about 45 minutes we were enraptured by the sight of maintenance workers packing and smoothing the dirt track. Then we got the ESPN feed of the skateboarding, which through the Staples Center’s clarity-challenged P.A. system sounded like: “And thienonfne klsingish fnnnuugled lipstonssssnnng! WOW!”
Did I mention that each and every one of the 1,396 bars inside the Staples Center was open throughout this “halftime”? At this point I invite you to close your eyes, lean back, and envision what some portions of an “extreme sports” crowd were like after having nothing to do but drink for over an hour and a half.
OK, you can open your eyes now. Hey! I said you can open your…damn…I always lose readers when I try that technique.
To be continued…