X Games Athletes Still Fighting for Respect While Racking Up Medals for USA

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2018

Snowboarder Chloe Kim is one of the breakout stars of the 2018 Olympics.
Snowboarder Chloe Kim is one of the breakout stars of the 2018 Olympics.Associated Press

Given the way snowboarders have carried the U.S. team in Pyeongchang, South Korea, it's downright comical to look back and remember how they were originally ridiculed as interlopers who would tarnish and perhaps even trash Olympic integrity.

What's even more amazing is that it was the stodgy International Olympic Committee that broke with tradition and pretty much stood alone in welcoming the rowdy new brand of competitors to the Games 20 years ago.

Anyone who's still holding out against the athletes who put corkscrew, eggflip and lipslide into the sports vocabulary must not be watching. All told, the once-maligned X Games athletes from snowboarding and freestyle skiing have won 10 medals for the U.S. in South Korea and could add more in the final weekend.

Without those performances, the U.S. medal count would have been down at 11 early Friday (Thursday night ET), leaving the Americans tied for eighth on the medals table with South Korea, Switzerland and Japan. Instead, the U.S. ranks fourth.

In Pyeongchang, no one dominated an event more than 17-year-old Chloe Kim, whose score of 98.25 in the halfpipe flirted with perfection. On the men's side, it was Shaun White, no longer wearing shoulder-length curls, winning a record third medal (all golds) in the halfpipe.

They've had some spills and mishaps here and there, but overall the U.S. snowboarders and freestyle skiers have seemed largely immune to the Olympic pressure that undoes so many athletes. And while it can't be proved, I have to believe that's at least partly due to their yearly experiences of being in the X Games, which for many are every bit as important to them as the Olympics. 

Yet there are still a few holdouts who grumble about the newcomers.

David Wise, who triumphantly defended his gold medal in the ski halfpipe while enjoying a 1-2 finish with U.S. teammate Alex Ferreira, told the Wall Street Journal, "We sort of feel like the ugly stepchildren."

Wise added, "But when you're the ugly stepchildren that win the most medals, everyone's got to take notice."

Skiier David Wise celebrates his second gold medal in as many Olympics.
Skiier David Wise celebrates his second gold medal in as many Olympics.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press/Associated Press

Those "stepchildren" are easy to identify at the Games, wearing baggy ski suits instead of the aerodynamic and skin-tight apparel seen in Alpine skiing and speedskating.

And to be fair to the doubters, the snowboarders did get off to a rocky start at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The sport's first Olympic champion was Ross Rebagliati of Canada, who temporarily had his gold medal taken away after he tested positive for marijuana. (Rebagliati, who years later opened a marijuana dispensary in Canada, claimed he was a victim of secondhand smoke.)

The Court of Arbitration for Sport determined that Rebagliati's drug of choice wasn't then on the IOC's list of banned substances, but the stereotype was launched, and soon there were many jokes that anyone in the halfpipe was probably smoking a full pipe.

The added irony is that in 1998, many ski resorts were still attempting to keep snowboarders off their slopes. That included the Mount Yakebitai site at Nagano, which forbade snowboarders before the Games.

The disparagement from the U.S. audience rapidly declined as the snowboarders steadily amassed medals. Perhaps the most notable diehard was NBC's Bob Costas, who in 2014 oddly took aim at an event his network was promoting. Just before the Sochi Olympics, Costas made some permanent enemies in extreme sports when he ripped the snowboarding slopestyle event on the Today show.

"I think the president of the IOC should be Johnny Knoxville," Costas said somewhat jokingly as he invoked the MTV Jackass show, which is filled with inane stunts.

"Basically this is just Jackass stuff they invented and called Olympic sports," Costas said. After some prodding from host Matt Lauer, Costas added that he meant the dissing "in the kindest way possible."

U.S. snowboarders and freestyle skiers went on to win 12 medals in Sochi. Costas had a less notable Games, missing much of the action while suffering from pink eye.

Snowboarder Jamie Anderson won golds in both Sochi and Pyeongchang.
Snowboarder Jamie Anderson won golds in both Sochi and Pyeongchang.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The IOC correctly understood that making extreme sports part of the Olympic norm was likely to bring the Games a surge in popularity, especially among the young people who were already watching the X Games and participating in these sports. The IOC had even ignored its own rules and added snowboarding without requiring the traditional protocols that have kept some new sports waiting for approval for decades.

The IOC also didn't back off. In 1998 there were 24 medals awarded in freestyle skiing and snowboarding, but steady expansion has escalated that number to 60 in Pyeongchang.

Red Gerard claimed the first U.S. medal of the Games in men's snowboard slopestyle, and Jamie Anderson quickly followed with gold in the women's version. Anderson also added a silver in the big air event that made its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang.

Aaron Blunck, a two-time U.S. Olympian in the ski halfpipe, told USA Today that the recognition still isn't where it needs to be.

"I think we definitely get some respect, but I think we deserve more, honestly," Blunck said. "It's pretty hard sometimes, especially within certain divisions because we're considered the daredevils, the rebels. But really, it's not like we're doing anything wrong. We're just out here chucking ourselves to the moon, and that's just how we are. We're adrenaline junkies, and you have to respect that about us."

And if the daredevils just keep doing what they've done the last two weeks, that respect will be impossible to deny.


Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today.


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