X is for X Games

Sky Brown will be 13 in 2021, not the youngest ever, but still hoping to qualify for Skateboarding at Tokyo 2020. Photo from the aptly-named SkyNews.

This post is not alphabetically cheating. X Games starts with an “X.” It does stand for the word “Extreme,” but it also refers to Generation X, the athletes who came of age during the 1990s. Those whippersnappers gravitated towards sports that involved new devices, like motorcycles, skateboards, and snowboards. At the time, cable sports channels were expanding, with networks like ESPN desperate for more things to cover. An annual festival with athletes performing circus-like tricks seemed a natural. With some of the sports coming into Tokyo, it seems like a perfect time for a preview.

X Games sports has already made serious inroads into the Winter Olympics. Snowboarding was introduced in 1998, and, by now, multi gold-medalist Shaun White is already 33 and retired. It took longer for summer X sports to trickle into the Olympics, although BMX will be entering its fourth Olympics in Tokyo. There’s already been a two-time BMX champion dethroned, Maris Strombergs of Latvia. Would it surprise you that Latvians and Estonians are nuts about a sport created in southern California? If you’ve read my posts or are an Olympic fan, it would not.

Extreme sports have captured the fancy of athletes worldwide. Even if many come out of American backyards by American kids using American products shown on American TV, the youth of the world has taken notice. BMX riders from the Netherlands and Colombia are world-class. The best surfers may be from Brazil. Sky Brown, the skateboarder who would have gotten in the record books, is from Great Britain, and Lizzie Armanto will skate for Finland. So, while some have suggested that these sports are going Olympic because they bring in lucrative TV revenue, the truth is that they have worldwide popularity and international talent.

That’s not to say that the IOC isn’t a committee full of greedy old men looking for broadcasting dollars–they are. But Olympic sports are added and eliminated by a formula more complicated than how much the IOC gets paid under the table (which it does). Not only does today’s “X” stand for Extreme, it also stands for Excluded Sports. Because to understand what’s Included, you need to understand what’s Excluded, and how that has created an ongoing raging debate.

The International Tug of War

For reals. That is, not only is there an international tug of war over which sports ought to be in and out of the Olympics, but there once was an Olympic international tug of war. Tug of War debuted in Paris 1900 and lasted through Antwerp 1920. Raging battles ensued among multiple teams from–wait, multiple US teams? multiple British club teams? Apparently, the Brits won all three medals in 1908 London because the Americans withdrew. They claimed members of the London police club were wearing illegal boots.

1904 Tug of War. USA beat USA. Photo from Wikipedia.

If your reaction is that Tug of War is a silly idea for a sport, then you fail the fundamental test of understanding sport. It’s only silly if you don’t play it. Robin Williams once explained how a drunken Scotsman invented golf, you wack the ball in the hole through water and sand and shite, and not with a reg’lar stick but a fooked-up stick, you wack and you wack until you think yer gonna have a stroke, and that’s what we’ll call it–a STROKE! It’s only ridiculous until it’s your country participating, then We’re #1. I, for one, would love to see that Serbia-Croatia tug of war match after what I discovered about water polo.

Sports go in and out of the Olympics primarily based on international participation. Formally, for a sport to be included, it must be practiced for men in 75 countries on four continents and for women in 40 countries on at least three continents. This is why we don’t yet have Ninja Warrior contests in the Olympics. Yet. It’s also why we don’t have Polo or Croquet.

Other factors involve the sport’s governing body and the venues. In the case of cricket, for example, the Cricket Boards in India and England have not pushed for inclusion. Cricket is wildly popular in Asia and England, but not elsewhere (that’s only 1.2 continents). Also, all sports coming into the Games now must include a women’s event. So much for cricket. Because of the high cost of building stadiums for host countries, venues have become a major issue. When a sport requires its own special building and only few countries participate, it’s hard for the IOC to justify the sport. This is why baseball and softball were pulled out of the London and Rio Games, as well as Major League Baseball being unwilling to part with players while their season was still on.

Maximum Sports & the New Revolving Door

Because of the increasing expense for a host country to build facilities, the IOC decided years ago that if new sports were added, then some sports would have to be excluded. In 2013, when deciding to add X Games X-citing sports to Tokyo, the IOC struggled over which sports to exclude. They chose wrestling and planned to drop it for 2020.

Wrestling, of course, had been one of the original ancient Greek sports. It carried a respectable history in the modern Olympics and was a source of pride and excitement internationally, especially in eastern Europe and Asia. The women’s division was robust and growing. Olympic wrestling–not that cage-match stuff–has a venerable history in the U.S., although it had fallen on hard times of late. (Covered in Foxcatcher and my book). However, the international wrestling community rallied and successfully lobbied to put the sport back.

Baseball/softball are also coming back, which has heralded slightly new rules for what’s in and out. Overall, the IOC has softened their 28-sport cap to allow shifts in sports programs for each new set of games, giving the host country the opportunity to push for a local favorite.

In Tokyo 2020, the five added sports are baseball/softball, karate, sport climbing, surfing, and skateboarding. But in Paris 2024, sport climbing, surfing, and skateboarding will be joined by breaking/breakdancing, and karate will be out. Los Angeles 2028 puts karate back in and takes breaking out, although cricket fans on social media are claiming there’s still time to lobby for their sport. We will likely continue to see the revolving door of sport in the Summer Games. As much as I personally love the modern pentathlon, I’m still wondering why it garners sufficient international popularity. Meanwhile, my daughter would be sad to learn that Paris and Los Angeles both considered eSports (gaming), but both opted to leave it out.

For our new inaugural X-sports coming in, let’s get acquainted with some of their rules. (I’ll skip baseball/softball, which you know if you like the sport, and karate, which is similar to taekwondo).

Sportclimbing: These People Spend Too Much Time at REI

Apparently, there’s already controversy in the sportclimbing universe about the format for Tokyo 2021. First, please note that the athletes will not be climbing actual rocks, but those artificial playgrounds created at your local camping store. There are three separate events within these climbing races, and I gather from the ALL CAPS commentaries that fans feel strongly that these should generate three separate medals because they are TOTALLY DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES. The official website lists only a Combined medal.

Team USA qualifer Kyra Condie practicing in her basement in Minnesota. Something to do in the shelter-in-place. Photo by Alexander Zoltai.

The combined medal includes lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing. Lead climbing will measure who goes the farthest up a 40-foot wall in a fixed time. Speed is exactly what it sounds like, race ya’ to the top. Bouldering involves… well, it’s complicated….If a competitor does not reach the top of a given boulder, separate credit will be awarded if the competitor at least reaches a “zone hold” midway up a given boulder. We’ll have to see that to figure it out.

The climbers are still pushing to have speed climbing separated as its own discipline saying, “it’s like asking a middle distance runner to run marathons.” Paavo Nurmi used to own the world records in the 1500, 3000, 5000, and the 10,000, and he might have won the marathon if he hadn’t been banned. There’s something to be said for versatility. From what I can tell, sportclimbing seems to require you to be part-spider and to use a LOT of rosin.

Dude Used to Live Next Door

Surfing has also made its way into the Games for Tokyo and Los Angeles. Not sure where they would surf outside of Paris, but I’m sure some afficionado will tell me. The really big happening in the surf world was the battle for the final spot on Team USA. Eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater (read, old guy) faced off against the youngster who worshiped him growing up, John John Florence (read, ingenue). Florence used to live next door to Slater and learned all his moves.

This is already made for the Olympics–the wily veteran and the nerveless rookie! Last fall during surfing season in the Pacific, Florence managed to eke out wins to take the final sport. Slater is out. But with the postponement, there’s always a possibility they might recontest, or injuries could come into play. There seem to be a lot of injuries in surfing.

Caroline Marks of Team USA. Photo from the OCRegister.

Surfing will involve judging of moves, with points for speed, power, and flow. Obviously, a big unknown factor will be how the waves behave on the competition day. This affects all outdoor athletes, but it seems particularly gnarly for surfing. Yeah, that’s right. I said it. Gnarly.

Given how much invective is hurled at skaters and gymnasts that if it’s artistic, it’s not a real sport, it will be interesting to see whether surfing is subject to the same criticism. Somehow, I don’t think so.

I Plan to Root for Leo

First, I must note that my son, the avid skateboarder, has for years hated Nyjah Houston, who is on Team USA. Houston would win all the competitions–and this was a decade ago, so Houston is now a veteran–according to my boy, with the same “lame moves.” I also read in research that Houston once said, “skateboarding is not for girls.” Also a lame move. Cue the boos. I don’t care if he took it back. I don’t care if he wins a gold medal for Team USA. This will be the last time I mention… what’s-his-name.

Olympic skateboarding will include plenty of girls and women, too, many of whom are fantastic skateboarders. The U.S. team even includes non-binary Leo Baker who uses gender neutral pronouns on the Women’s Street team (they’re using birth name Lacey).

Leo Baker of Skateboarding Team USA. Photo from Teenvogue.

There are two different disciplines for skateboarding: Street and Park. Street skating requires athletes to demonstrate moves over stairs, rails, and benches. Competitors will be judged based on speed, quality of moves, number of moves, and difficulty. Park skaters will compete in skate bowls and quarterpipe. If you’ve seen the halfpipe for snowboarders, you know how high those somersaults can go.

All in all, there will be a lot of new judging, new rules, and new names. Team USA doesn’t necessarily have the best athletes in all these disciplines, so that even if many of these sports came out of America, we could be underdogs, in a many cases.

Oh, goodie!

This post means we’re nearing the end of the A to Z Challenge. Only two more.

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