Editorial: X Games Needs Athletes
X Games needs athletes, not celebrities. This is what's happening with X Games today.
Some people tend to forget that Moto wasn’t always a part of X Games. In the beginning, the idea of anything with an engine being involved in X Games was unacceptable. X Games (the first of which was simply called “Extreme Games” in 1995) started out concentrating on Skateboard and BMX disciplines, but also threw in some odd sports such as “Street Luge” and things like that.
The following year came “X Games 2”, which is when the X Games brand name began, and it was more of the same. X Games 3 moved to San Diego. Then X Games 5 moved to San Francisco and introduced a new discipline and new star to the ranks: Freestyle Moto X and Travis Pastrana.
Pastrana was only 15 years old at the time and he dominated the event. He ended up going on a win streak for about a decade where he wouldn’t be defeated in a single freestyle event.
But since X Games 5, Moto disciplines have become the anchor of the X Games. And it’s easy to understand why, really. The tricks are bigger, faster, and more dangerous than anything else at X Games. In other words, it’s the most “extreme” sport they could possibly import.
Over the years, X Games has tried to bring in more and more Moto events. Some have stuck, and some haven’t. The list includes Freestyle Moto X (the original), Step Up, Best Trick, Best Whip, Moto X Racing (supercross, basically), Women’s Moto X Racing, Super Moto X, Speed & Style, and now Enduro X and Women’s Enduro X. I may even be missing some because this is just off the top of my head.
ESPN even attempted its own Moto-only event with the Navy Moto X World Championships in San Diego in 2008. ESPN knows moto is where it’s at. Just like the rest of us.
However, the problem with ESPN is that since they’re essentially creating a made-for-TV sporting event, it seems their focus has changed over the years from showcasing the talent and athleticism of athletes from alternative sports to getting ratings with big names. This has never been more apparent than this year.
Travis Pastrana is a good example of this over the years. Best Trick was introduced more or less because Pastrana would take part. And when Pastrana looked like he was getting away from Moto to race Rally Cars, all of a sudden Rally became a part of X Games. And then X Games 17 introduced the “Pastrana-thon” where Pastrana was going to take part in Best Trick, Freestyle, then race NASCAR on ESPN on Saturday, and then return to race Rally Cross on Sunday. Of course, it didn’t help that Pastrana broke his right foot/ankle in the first event of the “Pastrana-thon”, but the point is that ESPN has moved from promoting alternative sports as an attraction for TV viewers to promoting based on specific names. Names, in large part, that ESPN created with this very event.
And that’s the part that confuses me. I understand the need for ratings and promotion, but ESPN was probably the biggest factor in creating the Travis Pastrana we all know and love today. The X Games made him who he is in terms of fame and fortune on a world level, not just inside the motorcycle industry. So, ESPN should know that they can do the same with any number of other athletes, new and old.
If the athletes’ performances were all that mattered in order to determine medal status, like it should be, then we wouldn’t be talking about how Jarryd McNeil and Thomas Pages were robbed in Best Whip, or how Mike Mason should’ve won Speed & Style. Perhaps instead we would see Mason with a gold, and a new star would be born right there. Because that dude is funny. He’s a legitimate kook, and that’s exactly what freestyle motocross has always been about, isn’t it?
But it shouldn’t be dependant on big names. That’s the point. The sports stand for themselves. When Joe Montana retired, football didn’t suffer. The X Games needs to be the same way.
And as much as I love Carey Hart, there had to be guys more ready and capable of competing in Speed & Style. The guy hadn’t competed in an actual freestyle competition since 2002, when he got second in Best Trick at X.
But the thing is that Hart is a legitimate, mainstream star now. He has 250,000 followers on Twitter, for example. But even the ESPN website has him listed as an “entertainer” now. There were other guys more capable of competing for gold than Carey Hart, but he got the nod because he’s a massive name.
And that’s cool with me. I actually really liked seeing him out there, and he looked a lot better than I thought he would, but my only point is that ESPN isn’t making the sport the best it can be, or the most competitive, they’re trying to get people to tune in, which I think is a scenario of putting the cart before the horse: Make the competition good, and the people will tune in to see it, and you’ll make the future Carey Harts and Travis Pastranas in the process.
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