The world of sports may be focused on London, but during the past week athleticism of a decidedly ballsier kind was on display in Los Angeles as wide-eyed kids, patient parents and industry hangers-on oohed, ahhed, gasped and clapped at the feats of physical imagination and occasional crashes that unfolded at X Games L.A.. Forget the Wheaties, routines and leotards. This was about going big or going home -- preferably in jeans and tees.
It was the 18th anniversary of the event, which has grown from a scrappy East Coast competition for bold pioneers into a full-scale, semi-annual media extravaganza, with telecasts across multiple television networks, real-time reporting across the web, and a fan feeding frenzy all orchestrated by a well-oiled schedule machine that kept the proverbial partygoing. Domestically, in addition to L.A., X Games hits the slopes each winter in Aspen, Colo., for "extreme" winter sports, while quietly working toward world domination with annual X Games in Asia, and Tignes, France, with forthcoming X Games launching in 2013 in other locations, from Brazil to Barcelona.
At its Los Angeles home, nestled downtown at Staples Center, music blared in every corner for a total assault on the senses, and the competitions themselves felt like small oases of skill and performance amid the crowds and carnival-style stands with games, prizes and photo ops. At any moment, fans could duck inside to see BMX (offroad bicycle racing and bicycle stunts) veterans Steve McCann and Simon Tabron practicing casual 360s on little bikes designed for throwing stylish tricks, and reaching heights beyond a beach cruiser's wildest imagination. Elsewhere, spectators could take in the roaring rally car and moto events on courses inside and out (complete with exhaust fumes clinging to the air); absorb the noisy barrage of products hawked along sidewalk corridors, or catch skateboard prodigies Nyjah Huston and Ryan Sheckler throwing intricate kick-flips under a scorching summer sun.
Sheckler, who gained mainstream fame as the star of MTV's reality series, Life of Ryan, is a garden-variety heartthrob to the TV-viewing teen set. But to the skateboarding world, he and his fellow competitors are elites whose fandom is built year-round through video parts, magazine covers and medal-less contests that barely grace TV screens.
As the midday heat Sunday had spectators dripping with sweat, small children pressed up against the railings to see their heroes compete in the Men's Skateboard Street Final, in which Sheckler, Huston and others faced off on an event deck designed to look like a schoolyard. After Paul "P-Rod" Rodriguez won the event, Sheckler and Huston rushed across the park to bear-hug him, cameras rolling, in a moment that revealed more about skate culture than the most precisely executed switch kickflip frontside boardslide (which happened to help P-Rod win gold).
Moments like those underscored the tension in action sports, whose original culture of rebellion fostered a cool, insider's clubbiness, and which has had to grow up and contend with mainstream conventions such as TV-ready contest formats. Unlike athletes in London this summer, for whom competition is an end unto itself, for X Games L.A. competitors -- as P-Rod noted after his win -- collecting medals is just part of the bigger picture.
Despite the growing pains, X Games LA has managed to retain its other defining characteristic: heart-pounding, mortal fear. During practice last week, 21-time X Games medalist Bob Burnquist lost hold of his skateboard on the 27-foot MegaRamp quarterpipe, and hit bottom with an ear-piercing wail of pain. Rushed from the venue in an ambulance, he joked in a Tweet that day, "I need a new job."
His was just one of the eye-popping run-ins with gravity that occurred; on Friday Finnish RallyCross driver Toomas "Topi" Heikkinen came up short on a 50-foot gap jump, crashing head-on into the metal ramp during practice. Mortality, and these sports' confrontation with it, is the unspoken element that hangs in the balance with every trick, keeping fans riveted and stakes ever higher.
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Both men suffered minor injuries, while Burnquist, the 35-year-old skateboarder, returned to compete in the Big Air contest Friday night to take the top spot. Not only did he defy age and injury, but he also reclaimed the media narrative by besting his 12-year-old fellow finalist, Tom Schaar. In April, Schaar became the first skater to successfully pull off a 1080 (that's three full rotations) in competition, off the mini-MegaRamp quarterpipe at KIA X Games Asia.
In the end, experience, skill, and calm at rationality-defying heights proved to be the winning factor, not just for Burnquist, but other X Games LA veterans including skateboard vert guru Pierre-Luc Gagnon and BMX pro Jamie Bestwick, both of whom out-scored their younger counterparts.
And yet, still another factor informed some of the high-scoring, high-profile athletes assembled in L.A. last week. One of Bestwick's young threats, silver medalist Australian Vince Byron, paused for a moment in the basement media room to reflect on the unique challenge at X Games, where athletes must embrace both a grown-up career and the "Who cares?" mentality that still lends it its cool. "The more I think about the X Games, if I build it up, put it on a pedestal in my head, the worse I'm going to do," he said. "I know the tricks I want to do, I know what I can do. I try to relax and just do it."