At These Games, X Marks the Sports

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"Winning the gold medal has been my dream forever," Ross Powers was saying after leading an American sweep of the Olympic halfpipe competition. Forever is a pretty short interval for snowboarders, since the event was only run once before. To 19- and 20-year-olds like Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas, the silver and bronze medalists, forever is the time it takes before your Big Mac arrives.

The American sweep came a day after Kelly Clark took gold in the women's halfpipe, and offered rousing recognition that the X-Games generation had spray painted its ambition on the Olympics in neon colors. The X crowd is showing up on the tube, too. NBC's ratings for the 18-to-34 year old group, which deserted the network in Sydney, shot up 31% over the last winter games. "One of the most important lessons to be learned from Sydney was that we had to get back a fair share of the lost 18-34 year olds," said NBC's Sports honcho Dick Ebersol. That's why NBC hammered away at X events in its pre-Olympic promotions.

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Yesterday's spectacular aerials final, shown in prime time along with the traditional favorite, women's figure skating, is a perfect example of the rising (literally) popularity of extreme events. And what theater, with American Eric Bergoust, "Air Bergie," flaming out in an all or nothing leap for first place. The gold went to the Czech Republic's daring Ales Valenta, who wowed the crowds at the Deer Valley venue with a jump that had five twists.

These snowboard and freestyle events, added over the last several Olympics are part of a movement called freeskiing that is rapidly changing the sport in the U.S. And they are right where America's skateboard-surfboard-snowboard generation lives. In the mens? moguls, resident renegade Jonny Moseley had a sometimes raucous crowd salivating in anticipation of his signature "Dinner Roll" jump, and he did not disappoint. Moseley stole the show in each of his two runs — but left without a medal. Ah, the irony. The outrageous Moseley is too rad for freestyle. His Dinner Roll is a 720 degree off-axis rotating jump that Moseley executes going 45 mph down the 25 degree slope.

The Dinner Roll was superb but the judges felt Moseley's main course was lacking. Instead, winner Janne Lahtela of Finland and silver medalist Travis Mayer, of the U.S. ripped through the moguls, nailed their more traditional jumps and trumped Moseley with their speed. "Jonny was a little bit of his own program today," noted Mayer, indicating that Moseley played to the crowd and for himself, neglecting some of the basics. That's the judges' loss, said Moseley, who threw himself into the crowd after the first serving. "I'm very satisfied with my Olympic games, I'm walking away from here very happy."

So were most in the sun drenched crowd of 30,000 assortedly-pierced spectators who witnessed the halfpipe, staged in the blue splendor of the Wasatch mountains at the Park City Resort. How different is this sport? There was a warm-up act, the band Save Ferris playing at avalanche -inducing volume to the slushy mosh pit that formed in front of it. There's a sound track to snowboarding too, as each rider selects a song (from a pre-approved list) to play during his or her run, although most of the riders were listening to their own tunes. Kass had the AC/DC cranked — in part so he could drown out the crowd noise. The contrast between "Hells Bells" and John Williams' official Olympic theme could not have been greater.

"This is huge for us," Powers kept saying after soaring 18-ft. off the top of the pipe — major amplitude, dude — which earned him 46 out of 50 possible points on the first of his two final runs. The rest of his competitors spent the day falling out of the sky like shot ducks as they sailed and failed to overtake him.

It was huge for the Olympics, too, because the half pipe has become a happening, much like beach volleyball did at Bondi beach in Sydney. Nobody does a slow-mo wave at luge. "No one [of us] has seen people like that for a half-pipe contest," Thomas said. The trio admitted being awed by the crowd. "We're just stoked we got to come here," said the usually sarcastic Kass. Saving himself, he teased that, "I'm going to cry at the medal ceremony." Not.

The irony is that the Olympic institution that the kids love to diss is the clear winner. Going into the games, a number of snowboarding's top riders dismissed the Olympics as totally lame, an overstuffed competition run by Ice Age fossils who still think that curling is a sport. The best female rider, Tara Dakides, isn't to be found. Yet both the men's and women's halfpipe events have instantly become the premier competition in the X universe. It is, as they say, totally sick. Yes, the X-Games are still way cool, but all those teenager riders and bump skiers will now be pointing toward O, not just X.

There is still a gap of sorts between the establishment and these athletes: The post-game press conference is held in two languages. Powers described part of his winning ride thusly: "McTwist into a frontside seven indy into a cab seven indy into a stalefish into a backside 360 to a switch McTwist." Try getting that in a box score.