How It Works
Let's face it—the Winter Olympics has traditionally had a very old vibe. The iconic athletes even trend old—Bonnie Blair with her glorious mullet and Dave Jansen, baby in tow for a victory lap, come immediately to mind.
Enter the X Games.
This year a whopping 10 events will be contested in the broad category of freestyle skiing, the same number as its older Alpine brethren. These are the hotdoggers and daredevils, the skiers often in it for style points as much as they are ruthless competition.
"We're not really athletes," American skier Tom Wallisch joked with Us magazine. "I get out of breath quickly."
British slopestyle contender James Woods agrees, telling the BBC ""It is a little weird suddenly becoming called an athlete."
Athletes or not, freestyle skiing is an amazing spectacle. It can be roughly divided into four categories.
In the moguls, the skiing is about both speed and style. The athletes, wearing knee pads that stand out from their ski suits, head down a bumpy course. While speed is a factor in the scoring, controlled turns and jumping technique make up the bulk of the scores. High speed turns and two jumps add to the degree of difficulty.
Aerialists are like gymnasts on skis, often reaching up to five stories in height on their incredible jumps. You don't necessarily need to be a world-class skier in any traditional sense to compete in the aerials. Speed and technique don't count. Sticking the landing and pulling off some serious in-air contortions do.
Skiers also need the mental strength to change things up at the last moment. Coaches often call audibles at the last minute, determining which tricks to try based on opponents' scores. Aerial specialists are nothing if not adaptable.
How to Win
In the aerials, height and distance count for 20 percent of your score, execution and form 50 percent and the landing 30 percent. Competitors get two jumps in the qualifying round. The top 12 skiers perform two more jumps to determine the winner.
The two jumps account for 25 percent of a skier's score in the moguls. An additional 25 percent is awarded based on your time from start to finish. The remaining 50 percent is awarded based on a skier's ability to maintain a clean line during turns on the way down the course.
In the ski cross, the top 32 competitors are determined based on time trials. They then race down a 1,000-meter course littered with jumps and obstacles both man-made and natural in a series of four-person knockout races. Two skiers move on, while two are eliminated, until four racers remain to compete for a medal.
Slopestyle requires skiers to perform tricks on a series of pipes, rails and jumps where they are judged based on the technique and degree of difficulty. Skiers perform two runs in an elimination round, with survivors completing two more runs in the finals.
Athletes in the halfpipe perform a cornucopia of twists, flips and jumps while skiing a halfpipe. Scores will be based on height, takeoffs and degree of difficulty. The elimination and final round both include two runs for each skier.
Extreme skiing is nothing new. It dates back to the early 1900s when Alpine competitors would spice up some of their competitions with a bit of artistry. By the 1920s, trick shows were a part of almost any major event.
Because of the X Games, though, freestyle skiing feels young. Organizers aren't dumb. Already battling disinterest in the vast swaths of the world that are predominantly sun-drenched, they knew they couldn't afford to lose young viewers as well.
The solution was obvious. While the moguls became an Olympic event in 1992 and the aerials in 1994, it wasn't quite enough. Skiing was passing the Olympics by. There was a popular niche winter sports extravaganza that was already defying the odds and maintaining interest even in non-Olympic years.
There's a revolution on the slopes, and the Olympics have decided to acquiesce rather than fight. To their credit, the IOC added ski cross for 2010 and slopestyle and halpipe for Sochi.
Could You Do It?
If you are a skier, and you are under 40, you may already be doing it in some form. Snowboard and freestyle skiing may be the wave of the future.
"It would be boring to just ski down the slope," Verneri Hannula, one of the stars of Real Skifi, told CNN. "That's why we like to do tricks. When we do tricks, the only limit is our imagination."
Verdict: You could do some of it, but there would be major bumps and bruises.
Skiers to Watch
American David Wise is expected to take home gold in the halfpipe, where he's been dominant in X Games competition.
"When I first won the X Games, I wrote on my jacket, 'embrace the opportunity,' with a paint marker so that I would remind myself every time before I dropped in," Wise told ABC. "It's not about winning or losing or what people think of you. It's about you going out and doing what you love to do, your art."
In the aerials, China has come to the fore, with teammates Qi Guangpu and Jia Zongyang expected to battle for the top spot on the men's side, while Xu Mengtao is a promising prospect who may challenge established women stars.
Hannah Kearney and Heather McPhie are the most likely medal hopefuls among the American women. The two are among the best in the world in the moguls, where Kearney is the defending champion.
"I know everyone wants to beat me even more," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I know there’s no place to go at the top but to fall or to stay there."