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The future of sports - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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August 31st, 2002


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06:53 pm - The future of sports
Well, it ain't Slamball - nobody's talking about it. I don't know who the "usual suspects" are with regard to minority sports, but I don't perceive any sort of excitement, of public interest. No buzz, no second season, no chance. So long.

The BBC's flagship weekly sports magazine, Grandstand, has rebranded itself "Extreme Grandstand" for one day. There is always great debate about how much of what is effectively public money (as funded by the TV licence) the BBC should spend on sport; consequently, many of the prestige sporting events have gone to other channels.

In today's show, we have Football Focus, which is about 50 minutes of football clips and discussion. (Technically, this is its own show immediately beforehand these days, but the distinction is nothing but a technicality.) Some athletics from the Golden League meeting in Brussels. Next comes the Athletics Focus insert - same sort of thing, with athletics instead of football. As usual, watching discussion of a sport is far less entertaining than watching the sport itself. Coverage of the World Canoe Slalom Championships follows, which is a little unusual, but still fairly familiar. Next, the European X Games gets squashed into fifty minutes, thus inspiring the curmudgeons' collective "what's all this then?". A Radio 1 DJ hosts the insert and a swimming commentator adds half the chat, so we can say "B effort". After that, fifteen minutes of waffle introducing downhill mountain biking, ten minutes of half time, fifty minutes of actual downhill mountain biking footage and we're into the football final score ritual. All told, probably no more obscure overall than ITV's old "World of Sport" twenty years back - and they used to present British pro wrestling bouts alongside the rest of the legit sport.

It's the X Games on which we concentrate, though, specifically their X-iness - the extent to which they are "X". Lest we forget, their first incarnation was the "Extreme Games", and (like Matthew Gray of the hugely recommended Defective Yeti) we all know just how much the adjective extreme really means.

So what are the defining characteristics of an extreme game? ESPN would have you believe that danger is a major factor, with bikers, 'boarders and 'bladers (er, aggressive in-line skaters) all overloaded with safety equipment. (Not without reason, too.) However, there are many other sports which have their own different types of danger, so that isn't it.

ESPN would also have you believe that a large component is self-expression. Well, it's a judged sport, with all the inherent flaws (see point number four of my previous entry on the merits of sports design). In that regard, it might not be so wrong to compare the X Games' sports to, say, diving or rhythmic gymnastics. I'd love to see the equivalent of a "street course" for rhythmic gymnasts - imagine, if you will, a floor routine where gymnasts were permitted to leave the designated square and try to pull mad stunts off the assymetric bars onto the beam. Or onto a trampoline. Or onto the top of a scoreboard.

ESPN emphasise that there is no enforced style in their sports, by contrast to the way that there is an objectively correct way to dive in a tuck position. I don't think that this is about self-expression, as much as it's about anything at all - it's about indiscipline. The sports are judged in a matter which does not require discipline; frequently contestants can win through one excellent performance and two aborted ones, "best trick" competitons reward those who do not have the craft to fashion a complete run full of different elements, contestants frequently have considerable latitude as to the duration of their runs (the presence of optional "glory time") and all the judges are completely free to judge based on overall impression. (I do note the existence of the Winter X Games which has a large number of relatively straightforward races - plus the fact that the Summer X features downhill skateboard races and street luge with the terrible Biker Sherlock and company. While there is less to criticise in a straight race, almost all the X Games' races seem to be processional after the "hole shot" of the first few yards. I tended to turn the channel for all but the sport climbing.)

It's true that there is a certain sort of attitude required and emphasised, but it's not as street-tough, crazy and respectless as you might anticipate. Indeed, there was a famous incident in which one contestant decided to do the most spectacular motorbike-jumping stunt ever by deliberately jumping the wrong way over the biggest jump, over the contestants' heads, off the pier and into the sea. That was declared officially "not cool", the run wasn't shown, the contestant was made to apologise and was penalised within the contest. That sort of thing doesn't happen to, say, Evil Knievel.

The overriding attitude also affects the style of coverage that it receives. It isn't straightforward sports broadcasting, the coverage tends to be loaded with features, interviews, camera trickery, mini-documentaries, gratuitous (but generally very entertaining) graphics and - most spuriously of all - music videos. This non-sport material can justly generically be referred to as "crap". We're watching the sport for the sport, man!

There is also a definite sort of attitude encouraged (required?) among the competitors, playing up the nightclub party angle, even if a lot of their competitors are too young to be legally allowed in. Should we be surprised that it was snowboarding at the Winter Olympics where a competitor was busted for marijuana? (Would it be too easy to make the joke that X Games drugs tests check to see that the competitors actually do have some?)

The commentary is also very stylistic: participants "stick" moves when they complete them, the delight caused by performing a "burly" (outstanding) move causes the competitors to be "stoked". To be fair, this is no more unusual than football vocabulary; why should being "stoked" be any different to being "over the moon"? Some of the commentators can be tremendously funny; I still chuckle over the time a commentator used the most fantastic, indescribable, arbitrary intonation when comparing a performer to "a meek little lamb".

It's true that the sports themselves have grown up a long way past being confined to just the X Games. Indeed, the Olympic take on them is for a rather more codified tournament and rather more structured judging, but it's not so staid that the skateboarders can't have music in the background while they go down the half-pipe. NBC's Gravity Games, in exactly the same vein as the X Games, award guitars to outstanding competitors. Now that's cool.

Another point about the X Games is that it's very much male-centred. Sure, you get occasional standouts like aggressive inline skater Fabiola da Silva, who is close to being "best of species" rather than "best of gender". The overall effect is very much that of big boys playing with big boys' toys and the merchandise backs this up - not least the forthcoming grossout-comedy-o-sport-o-T'n'A game "BMX XXX", newly dissociated from the series' previous celebrity endorser Dave Mirra. Not much chance of, or much interest in, a counterpart "BMX YYY" for the ladies.

Despite everything, I still love watching the X Games and all their constituent sports. This is partly for their comedy, this is partly (just like watching stunts or diving) just because the performances themselves are extremely spectacular. Tony Hawk's (not Tony Hawks') famous skateboard 1080, at about the eighth attempt, is one of the television highlights of all sport. The inline skaters do the best stunts (they do 1260s!) but the bikers are the most spectacular. Double backflips with tens of pounds of machinery beneath them? These people are mad. Double tailwhips? What genius, what inventiveness, what dexterity. They really have taken their sport to an - oh dear - extreme. (Oh, and the winner of the silver medal in the always-incredible bike flatland contest, Bill Dolan, lives in London but comes from Middlesbrough.)

The older X Games were even better still. The X-iest, extremest sport of them all (which, sadly, was cut out after just two or three years' Games) was skysurfing. Pairs jump out of aeroplanes at considerable height and skydive through the air for a minute before opening their parachutes and landing safely. One person has his feet attached to, effectively, a surfboard; the other person is attached to a camera. The two work in co-operation to produce the most spectacular videos of aerial stunts possible. (Sorry, the videos of aerial stunts with the most convoluted names possible: the Henhouse Surprise, the Filthy McNasty. There are no references to the latter move on Google so perhaps this was ESPN having a joke at our expense.) The most entertaining move of them all was one of the simplest; cameraman and surfer rotate in exact sympathy in "the barrel roll" so it looks like the two of them are staying still and the rest of the world is spinning round. Forget 540s, 900s, 1260s, these guys do 17460s!

Let's also take time out to remember the adventure races that featured in the first events. Think of the "marathon" from "It's A Knockout", the game which took place a round at a time between all the other games, only stretch it out to a marathon. Effectively, you start with a triathlon - a long triathlon - and then decide to make it harder for no particular reason. You might include a canoeing section, you might put the run in the desert (where temperatures get up to "160 degrees in the sun" - er, 70 degrees Celsius sounds quite frightening enough already, thanks) and you might gratuitously include a few mountains to climb. That ought to keep the most ultra-fit of the ultra-endurance athletes busy for... well... several days non-stop with very little sleep. Scary, inspiring, almost superhuman stuff - and for remarkably little reward, too. The cliché "painful just to read about it" applies in force.

Incidentally, a logo painted onto one of the ramps revealed that this was a qualifying event for "X Games VIII". Number eight! I hadn't realised it had been going so long. The other way to look at it is that it's only two years until "X Games X", which is probably a good indication that the original concept has reached its natural conclusion, even though the sports themselves have a long way to go. The novelty is gone. Alternative sports are now about as alternative as 1980s alternative comedians; with sponsorships and pro tours, the sports are virtually mainstream these days. (It's also remarkable that the X Games movement is only two years older than the Mind Sports Olympiad movement. The profiles of the two are a gulf apart; I guess that's - at least in part - the effect of proper media backing. Perhaps it might help if we renamed bridge to "partnership aggressive trick-taking".)

So where next for the X Games? My learned friends who play laser games - no, sorry, "who take laser games to the next level" - have been rumbling about possible inclusion for about five years, but the fact that they've been talking about it for five years indicates that it's probably never going to happen. Indeed, I suspect the only time that it might really have happened would have been the US Photon boom of the mid-to-late-'80s, but that's another matter. The DDR players might also fancy that they have the right sort of attitude to be part of the X Games and I do perceive that there is some sort of temperamental match. (That's meant as a compliment!) However, while I have the greatest of respect for the DDR community (more of that some other time!) I think that DDR would be as uncomfortable a fit with the X Games as chess and bridge would be with the Winter Olympics. I would have thought that there was a gap in the market for the laser gamers and the DDR players to get together with the computer gamers - perhaps the World Cyber Games might expand to include technology-based games with significant physical components?

But what extreme sports might join the X Games in the future? (I am convinced that Wheelbarrow Freestyle is an arty hoax.) Let's return to Grandstand for the answer. The X Games already have many bike competitions and downhill skateboarding - the answer, is presented by Extreme Grandstand, is downhill mountain biking. It's very simple to understand - here's a hill which takes a very windy, narrow course down its 750m drop, get from the top to the bottom as fast as you can - and extremely visual. It also looks like good plain fun, just the sort of thing that you did as a speed-crazed youngster written much larger. The top pros come down the hill at over 71 km/h, whereas you or I might feel daring when taking it at 40 or 50. The safety gear value is high, the potential for exciting, visual crashes is high too. (To be fair, the Winter X Games have featured downhill mountain biking on snow. It's not as good.)

Today's Grandstand featured the world championships of downhill mountain biking, won by one Nicolas Vouilloz. Said Monsieur Vouilloz turns out to have won the previous nine world championships as well! If Grandstand is correct, this represents outstanding domination of a sport, more impressive than Stephen Hendry's five successive and seven total World Snooker Championships. Nicolas didn't just nick the win; he beat all but one of the 50+ competitors by 1% and all but about four by 2%. Compare this to the men's 100m in which a win with a metre of clean air is thought considerable. Now that's extreme dominance of a sport. What a guy.

Nicolas Vouilloz. He's the best sportsman you'd never heard of!

Last call for the vocabulary game. Deadline is the end of the month, judged by my local time, so no tricks with the system clock!

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