Mass Xceptance: The Too-Discovered Country of Extreme Sports

“I know it’s a cliché now, but these sports do have their own lifestyles and culture.”
— Ron Semiao, X Games founder

“To the extreme I rock a mic like a vandal.”
— Vanilla Ice, rapper

X. It’s a crossroads, a target, a buried treasure, or a generation of angst-riddled grunge fans. It’s also a variable, an algebraic placeholder signifying an infinity of possible values or meanings. This definition perhaps best explains the moniker “X Games”, an enigmatic, frequently fluid collection of athletic competitions that have long been on the margins of accepted sports. The competition — whose 12th iteration recently wrapped up at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to an audience of more that 40,000 on its final day — was originally devised as a celebration of counter-cultural rebelliousness but has been moving increasingly into the living rooms of mainstream viewers ever since. With extensive corporate sponsorships, venues in Latin America and Asia, and, most tellingly, a flotilla of copycat marketing campaigns, “X” today may stand more for ex-posure than anything else.

Of course, the original derivation is from “extreme”, showcasing the risk, spectacle, and thrill that the athletes offer audiences in their respective events. Also known as action sports, the umbrella of the extreme genre has come to include more established sports like snowboarding, skateboarding, and surfing, as well as more obscure sports like BMX biking, motocross biking, and rally car racing. At times, the X Games have even featured bungee jumping, bouldering, sky surfing, and street luge. It would seem, then, that the main criteria for inclusion in the games is not popularity, but rather the level of danger involved in participating in these events. That’s not to say that injuries aren’t prevalent in football or basketball, but the dangers posed by more mainstream sports are often far less life-threatening than their extreme counterparts. Tear a muscle? You’re looking at six months of rehab. Parachute doesn’t open during a sky surfing competition? You’re looking at an eternity under six feet of dirt.

In fact, a great many of the X Games’ sports are what might be considered elsewhere the stuff of childhood dares or wacky vacation stunts. But ESPN (which first helped to organize and broadcast the event) has managed to legitimize these competitions by positioning the sports and their athletes as alternatives to all-American jock-ism. In playing up the punk rock, DIY ethos of skaters, surf bums, and adrenaline junkies, the X Games (and extreme sports in general) have edged their way forward from the margins of sports culture and now boast a committed following. That’s not to say, though, that it’s all been merely marketing smoke and mirrors.

Extreme sports do have a storied, if brief, past to draw from. The progenitors of the movement have been well celebrated in films like Dogtown and Z-Boys, which showcases the development of the skateboarding subculture in ’70s California. Key to this development was an emphasis on the skaters as outsiders, reclaiming sectors of the urban landscape (city parks, abandoned swimming pools) for their own recreational purposes. Half athletes, half rebels, these figures became known for increasingly pushing the limits of physical sanity with their gravity-defying stunts. The development of the X Games, then, which debuted on ESPN in 1995, merely provided a larger venue for these already active athletes, showcasing their abilities in moments such as Tony Hawk landing the first 900 in skateboarding competition history, or Brian Deegan’s first 360 in Motocross Freestyle, or, most recently this year, Travis Pastrana landing a previously unheard of double back flip in that same event. Indeed, the culture of extreme sports ensures that these athletes will continue to push past the accomplishments of previous X Gamers to achieve more dizzying, more spectacular heights. By this token, then, the “extreme” moniker is an apt one.

However, it’s also a tag that’s been co-opted, reconstituted, and mass produced for a whole host of target demographics by decidedly un-hip corporate interests looking to cash in on the growing action sport phenomenon. As a result, we can today purchase an Xenergy drink made by Xyience (“extreme science”, the company website informs us). And not to be outdone, another beverage company, Xoxide, offers another “x” to intensify the appeal of its drink, Steven Seagal’s Lightning Bolt Energy Drink (seriously). Drinking these products no doubt gives the kind of superhuman energy needed to pull off something like a double back flip, the strain of which might cause one to sweat with exertion. Luckily, Right Guard sells an “Xtreme” deodorant (with Jackass stuntmeister Bam Margera screaming the product’s praises on TV), and Microsoft makes the Xbox gaming system to help us relax after such a feat. There are also “xtreme” carbon fiber products, should the need arise for the particularly rebellious decorator. The “xtreme” craze is so overblown that even The Simpsons has spoofed the trend. In an episode entitled, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”, Homer gets a job as the voice of the animated character Poochie, the edgy, hip, skateboarding dog whose advice to kids at the end of one show is to “recycle…to the extreme!”

Naturally, Poochie’s senselessness only highlights the insanity of the “extreme” trend. How deodorant, or a soft drink, or carbon fibers can approach the same thrill as a 360 on a motocross bike is, of course, not for consumers to spend time pondering. Instead, they are expected to identify with those X Games athletes who can perform such stunning feats on ESPN and simply opt to emulate them — not through hard work and training, but by picking up a deodorant stick. Shaun White, the gold medal winner in the snowboarding half pipe in this year’s Winter Olympics in Torino, is one such athlete that many sponsors are banking on to inspire consumers into a whole host of buying decisions. With a Rolling Stone cover and countless interviews and photo spreads to his credit, White, known popularly as “The Flying Tomato”, is poised to take over skateboarder Tony Hawk’s role as the ambassador/poster boy of extreme sports. Boasting a shock of red hair and happy-go-lucky, sometimes goofy, demeanor, White’s image suggests where the spectacular snowboarder gets his nickname. However, it is interesting to note that he shares that name with hundreds of Italian restaurants and pizzerias around the country. Like pizza, White is now boxed and packaged to be consumed, delivered fresh at audiences’ doorsteps on an increasingly regular basis.

This kind of delivery ultimately poses a double-edged sword for the organizers of the X Games and other extreme competitions. Such media saturation threatens to destabilize the credibility of these games as “alternative sports”. If Shaun White or Travis Pastrana are on TV as much as Shaquille O’Neal and Tom Brady, then the counter culture guise under which they perform will quickly come undone. Still, the alternative to such exposure is for the games to whither away in obscurity. It’s a bind every bit as daunting as a 1080 for these athletes, who need to project an alternative image in order to be seen by their fan base as legitimate athletes, yet who are also responsible for keeping their sport in the public eye (as well as for the prompt payment of countless hospital bills). Even the very nature of organized competitions like the X Games is fundamentally antithetical to the spontaneous nature of many of these sports’ origins (snowboarding and skateboarding in particular). As extreme sports gain popularity and become more organized, they approach the quotidian mainstream and threaten to consume themselves under the weight of their own spotlight.

Of course, the same could be said of all that is underground, hip, or rebellious. What’s hidden, to put it cynically, will always eventually be dug up and overexposed, leaving the originators and their fans to pout on the sidelines, sporting their “I was here first!” t-shirts to no avail. Such is regularly the case for musical acts, as well as clothing trends, and even technology, such as Gmail. This cycle is unbreakable, inevitable, and determines that your fate will be some day to see your CPA at a Burning Man festival. Still, the key point to consider here is that the process is a cycle. Even as the X Games threatens to push the sports and their athletes into the homogenized glare of mainstream culture, we can look expectantly toward whatever underground sports remain for future exploitation and overexposure. Thumb wrestling? Kickball? Marbles? Well, perhaps the world may not lay in wait, after all. But rest assured, soft drink companies and their ilk are already scouring the globe, looking to embed their stamp on the next big thing, thereby dragging it kicking and screaming into the harsh light of day to empty its pockets for all that the companies can shake free. It’s a lesson that the otherwise streetwise X Gamers may have to learn sooner rather than later.