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X Games Show The Olympics What The Kids Want

Nick Goepper competed in the ski slopestyle qualification for the European Winter X Games last March.
Jean-Pierre Clatot
AFP/Getty Images
Nick Goepper competed in the ski slopestyle qualification for the European Winter X Games last March.

Nick Goepper is headed off to the Olympics in a couple of days, but he's not taking it easy: He spent the weekend hurtling through the air on ESPN at the X Games.

The sport is slopestyle. If you've watched any extreme skiing on television, you'll know it well: Skiers hit rails and walls and massive jumps; they seem to spend more time in the air than on the snow.

It's old hat for kids, but brand new for the Olympics. Sochi is the debut of slopestyle as an Olympic sport, proving once again that where the X Games go, the Olympics will follow.

The X Games are so popular that even first-time Olympians like Goepper risk injury for a chance to perform for the crowds in Aspen, home of the games.

"This is one of best training tools to use right before the Olympics, 'cause I mean, you're going to see a lot of the same runs, a lot of the same styles that are going to happen at the Olympics," Goepper says. "It's kind of a good test event."

And it's the new model for how winter sports are done. The Olympics learned long ago that the X Games tap into something primal inside the teenage mind.

One of the spectators at this weekend's games, Lorenzo Semple, brought his son out to see the twists and flips.

"Kids are like the Terminator when they're looking for terrain features and jumps," Semple says. "Anything basically to upset their parents, and this is just kind of like an extension of that on a much grander scale."

The X Games made snowboarding famous. It's the reason half-pipe and boardercross became popular enough to make it to the Olympics. Now slopestyle is about to move into the Olympic spotlight.

Tim Reed, senior director of events for ESPN, has no problem with the imitation.

"It kind of shows that we're kind of pushing progression and doing things that, you know, kids and youth lifestyle are into," he says.

But when a youth-lifestyle, punk-rock sport makes it to the Olympics, some things inevitably change, as slopestyle skier and now aspiring Olympic medalist Gus Kenworthy noticed.

"I definitely think that there are people that kind of even resent the Olympics because they think that it's changing the sport," Kenworthy says. "The sport originally started because we didn't want rules. We wanted it to be free and have all this freedom and be unique and creative and individualized. And I think that yeah, the Olympics does take some of that out of the equation."

Kenworthy says there were debates about who should run the sport and who makes the rules. But in the end he's excited for the Olympics and what it can do for his sport; just look at what the exposure did for snowboarding.

"Since then it's really pushed the athletes," Kenworthy says. "I mean you've had snowboarders on Dancing With the Stars; just the opportunity to kind of grow and be something more than just a skier or snowboarder."

The X Games have not just provided new sports to the Olympics, but also a change in atmosphere. The DJ who blares the rock music under every run for the X Games has been hired to play the same soundtrack for the games in Sochi. Some of the announcers and the technical crews also have their tickets booked for Russia.

The Olympics wants those young viewers that the X Games have energized, but it's drawn the line at the raw commercialism you see at the X Games. Semple says it gets on his nerves.

"You can see the priority is to get on TV," Semple says. "To hold up your skis, to show your sponsor, to hold the Monster Energy Drink can up in front of the camera."

In the case of X Games champion Nick Goepper, it's actually a Red Bull — the name is emblazoned on his helmet, but he's going to have to take it off for the much stricter Olympics. He says it's kind of hard to abide by all the guidelines, because that's how he makes a living. But the payoff will come when the whole world sees him pull out those X Games moves in Sochi.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.

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