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Winter X Games get off to a roaring start

Posted: Friday, January 31, 2003

ASPEN, Colo. -- Snowboarders sail through the air as music by Metallica blares. Kids with spiked blue hair and diamonds in their noses cheer skiers over humps. Announcers scream, ''Big unload!'' after snowmobiles crash.

Get ready. The Winter X Games are back, bigger and louder than ever.

With wild rides, spectacular crashes and in-your-face attitude, the event's seventh edition opened Thursday in a town known for celebrity residents and extravagance.

''It's intense, very outrageous and there's lots of air,'' said 17-year-old Rob Kurtanich of Pittsburgh, vacationing with his family. ''I had seen it on TV, and it just seemed like something that would be great to go to, and something that would have a great atmosphere.

"So far, it's lived up to its reputation.''

ESPN created the Extreme Games in hopes of drawing younger viewers with a new brand of dangerous sports.

The first Winter X Games, in Big Bear, Calif., in 1997, drew an average audience of 214,000 per telecast. That number grew to 317,000 by 2001.

The games were tape-delayed last year because of conflicts with the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, but ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC still managed to set several single-day ratings records for the still-growing event.

The X Games drew 200,000 people to Philadelphia last August, and close to 40,000 fans are expected to cram along the side of Buttermilk Mountain to watch snowboarders, skiers, snowmobile races and motorcycle jumpers this year.

''When we first started the X Games, people said the sports weren't really sports and they weren't real athletes,'' ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said. ''I think as people have become more exposed to the sports, they have started to accept them more. They are closer to becoming part of the mainstream.''

The increased popularity of snowboarding -- the only original Winter X still around -- has a lot to do with it.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, the number of snowboarders has increased from 1.6 million in 1991 to 5.3 million in 2001, making it the fastest growing sport in the country.

Snowboarding participation jumped 22.9 percent from 2000 to 2001, the largest increase of any sport, with boys aged 7-17 accounting for 1.8 million or 35 percent of the riders in 2001.

At the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, snowboarders gave the United States its first medals sweep in any Winter Games event in 46 years. The sport joined the Olympics in 1998.

''It's a lot of fun, and it's something that just about anybody can do,'' Kurtanich said.

Sponsors noticed the excitement, with mainstream companies hitching their sleds to the Winter X Games.

Signs lining race courses include the logos of Motorola, Taco Bell and Mountain Dew. Sponsors' tents fill the base of the mountain, with workers enticing people with freebies ranging from candy to cell phones.

''It just makes good business sense to try to make an impression on these younger people and give them exposure to our brand,'' said Diane Jackson, senior manager of communications for Jeep. ''This is a good place to reach all of those young people.''

On one side of the mountain, Gen-X kids gather to watch riders sail down a slalom course filled with humps and bumps during the snowboarder X race.

Kids with dyed hair and neon-colored clothes line the tracks as announcers breathlessly talk about ''rippers'' being ''stoked'' about their ''gnarly'' rides.

Mixed in with the crowd are plenty of parents with young children, taking in the action after some Aspen schools closed for the weekend because of the games.

The other side of the slope, at the snowmobile track, looks more like a NASCAR race.

As riders dive into banked corners and catapult up to 25 feet in the air, fans line the track wearing multicolored jackets with the logos of their favorite ''sleds.''

They talk about engines, occasionally nodding in approval after a rider sails off the track's final jump.

''We don't even go over to the other side,'' said local Mark Holcomb, who let his two sons skip school to watch the snowmobile races.



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