How the Winter Olympics became the X Games

The Games have become obsessed with death-defying stunts — but at what expense?

Czech Republic's Jan Zabystran at the Winter Olympics.
(Image credit: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images)

In some ways, alpine skiing is the perfect sport. While there was no giant slalom at the original Olympic Games, downhill skiing shares the same poetic combination of classical athleticism and the grace of the human body as the staid footrace of the 1st Olympiad in 776 B.C. Clipped into her skis, a professional skier slices through the snow with the same razor-sharp precision and artistry as a master itamae might slip a blade through the soft flesh of a fish.

It is a high-speed sport where disasters are not altogether uncommon: Skis can catch an edge, as Lindsey Vonn's did at her first World Cup competition of this Olympic season, at Lake Louise in Alberta. While training ahead of the same competition for downhill, a sport in which Olympic-level competitors can hit more than 80 miles per hour, French skier David Poisson tragically died following a crash.

Alpine skiing, though, is not at its essence a death-defying competition. It is a race against the clock, where a loss is predicated on taking a turn too slow, moving ever so imperceptibly in a way that adds wind resistance where the competitor wants none. But the macabre truth is that it's fun to watch athletes cheat death. After all, people didn't flock to watch Evel Knievel jump over foam pits; the thrill is in imagining what could happen with a wrong move and a ring of fire.

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At some point along the way, the Olympic governing body realized this. And at some point, the Winter Games began to change. The question remains, though: At what point does upping the ante simply become stupidity?

With the institutional acceptance of freestyle, which joined the Olympics in demonstrations in 1988, a new emphasis was introduced to skiing: spectacle. Instead of racing against the clock, freestyle competitors win by scoring the most points through the boldest maneuvers and the most fantastic, perfectly executed tricks. While the Olympics and the International Ski Federation (FIS) have traditionally made an effort to minimize the consequences of an error on the course, unfairly earning themselves the reputation of being stodgy, their biggest competitor, the X Games, have pulled in the opposite direction, playing up the gruesome danger and earning their competitions and demonstrations the "coolness" factor — and the viewers, sponsors, and TV money that follow.

The "Extreme Games," later shorted to "X" for the sake of translation and branding, officially launched with the full-throated support of ESPN in 1997, drawing an audience of 38,000 to watch sports like snowboarding and super-modified shovel racing. A year later, the Olympics gave the nascent competition a boost by bungling its own competitive snowboarding debut; Ross Rebagliati was disqualified in Nagano after winning snowboarding's first gold medal because THC had showed up on his blood test; then he was given his medal back after it was established that marijuana was not on the list of banned substances. Epitomizing the target audience, snowboarder Danny Davis explained to USA Today: "I didn't really grow up on watching ski racing or anything like that. X Games was my thing to watch during the winter."

By 2010, over 43 million viewers watched the Winter X Games on ESPN and another 84,000 attended the event in Aspen, Colorado. In an attempt to keep up, the Olympics added ski and snowboard cross the same year; it's an absurd competition that involves competitors racing in a group, demolition derby-style, as athletes crash over rollers, banks, and jumps. Watching some of the first of such events live in Vancouver in 2010, I didn't know whether to laugh or cover my eyes for fear of witnessing a leg snap as effortlessly as a carbon fiber pole. Indeed, ski cross racer Nik Zoricic, 29, died in 2012 in Switzerland after hitting a hard-packed snow wall at the end of the course.

Yet in order to stay relevant and attract the young blood, the Olympics has an unenviable task: impressing viewers who would rather tune into competitions that do away with romantic ideals of athleticism in favor of adrenaline-junkie, stitches-inducing extreme sports. Slopestyle, a terrain park course competition, was added to the Olympics only at the last Games in 2014, although it had been a staple of the X Games since 2002. As one BBC commenter raved of a "scary" slopestyle course at the Sochi Olympics, "it will look fantastic in clear weather on TV during the Games."

This year, the Olympics are debuting the snowboarding equivalent of skiing's aerials, but with a cooler name: "Big air." As The New York Times breathlessly puts it, big air is "best described as the most beautiful, insane, stupid, dangerous, death-wishing, insane, and beautiful sport ever perpetrated on innocent spectators." Athletes "routinely" get air of 65 feet after going off the ramp, the Times adds, and in what is apparently an endorsement for viewers, "death is always near."

One line the Olympics so far has refused to cross, however, is the "gap jump," where a large open space looms ahead of the landing for a skier or snowboarder to clear. A gap jump in and of itself does nothing to separate a good skier from a mediocre one. In the case of a skier who does well on the obstacle, they come out the same way no matter what: landing, and moving on. But if the skier does not take the jump well, they don't just tumble down the other side of a snow ramp; they smash into a wall of ice, and plunge down the drop. With a gap jump — which is featured in the X Games but still banned in the Olympics — the disastrous consequences of failure are the appeal.

All sports competitions might be considered as resting on a continuum, where classical displays of athleticism and entertainment sit on opposite sides. A 100-meter dash is perhaps the most pure show of raw athleticism; there is very little about a footrace that is subjective. On the other side of the spectrum are stunts that breathtakingly cheat death. How far are the Olympics willing to slide to stay competitive?

Audience metrics suggest that despite a tentative embrace of danger, the Olympics are still fighting a losing battle. The median age of a viewer of the last Winter Olympics, in 2014, was 55; meanwhile, the X Games saw its millennial audience grow 24 percent last year alone.

The Olympics are eminently aware of sponsor money and the necessity of appealing to a larger audience. Pyeongchang 2018, Beijing 2022, and the many more future Games will need to navigate the quandary that follows when the sports business shifts to being the sports entertainment business, an ethical divide most publicly playing out in the NFL, where the safety of the athletes has perhaps become secondary to the money being pulled in.

Over the past decade, thankfully, the International Ski Federation's official numbers show that World Cup and Olympic competitions have not gotten dramatically more dangerous, a testament to the obsessive work of the officials and volunteers who regulate and maintain the rules and courses. Still, it's a sport where the glory is in the daring; more than 10 percent of Winter Olympic athletes sustained at least one injury at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and 20 people got concussions, an injury we have come to understand can lead to the lifelong damage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Snowboard cross was found to be the most dangerous of all, with 73 percent of female athletes sustaining an injury.

"There is a conflict," admitted the International Olympic Committee medical commission head, Arne Ljungqvist, to CBC. "The interest of making sport more interesting perhaps but also a little more dangerous." So far, the Winter Games have proven to be willing to walk a thinner and thinner line as they attempt to appeal to the X Games generation while sticking true to its roots. It does not look as if raw athletic competition will hold out much longer — already, perhaps, it has not.

It is ironic to hold up antiquity as the ideal, though. Today, the Winter Olympics totter on the precipice of becoming an event as gladiatorial and brutish as a different set of ancient games.

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