Snowboard cross is a winner.
The event, a race down a motocross-style course on snowboards, with four competitors going at a time, was contested in the Olympics for the first time Thursday. American Seth Wescott won the gold medal, and extreme sports have finally contributed something worthwhile to the landscape.
Women's SBX, as the kids call it, was scheduled for Friday, with 20-year-old American Lindsey Jacobellis, the sport's dominant figure, a gold-medal favorite.
Wescott is a refugee from halfpipe, where he said he grew dissatisfied with the judging. That's the problem with all of the X Games-style sports, or at least most of them. They're variations on figure skating, gymnastics or diving. The athlete does something, and then the judges tell them how well they did it. Too subjective.
And with one competitor at a time in play, too repetitive.
Since extreme sports are all about attitude and individualism, it's kind of funny that they're built on the figure-skating model.
Snowboard cross is the exception. The snowboarders don't just battle the course, they battle each other. There's not a lot of room for the four of them, and there's a lot of strategy involved in jockeying for position and deciding when to try to pass. Plus, they're going fast. Plus, there are a lot of crashes.
It makes for a pretty wild event. Wescott, who likes to run in front, thus avoiding the tangles and spills that plague the pack -- the other three racers -- fell behind Radoslav Zidek of Slovakia early in the final race, then darted inside him on a right-hand turn to take the lead late in the race. Zidek took silver.
The Winter Olympics have gotten a shot in the arm, artistically if not commercially, from the influx of extreme sports. The freestyle skiers and snowboarders have brought a welcome dose of, frankly, American youth and style to the Winter Games, which tend toward Lycra-clad Nordic automatons and stodgy figure-skating divas.
Sports Illustrated ran a two-page posed photo of most of the snowboarding team in its Olympic preview, and it looked like a publicity still from a Fox youth drama. Seven of the nine boarders -- or "Super Shredders," as the headline called them -- wore blue jeans, and it didn't look like one of those embarrassing "Hey, let's put them all in blue jeans" shots.
The snowboarders seem like regular people, kids who happen to be good at something. They bring their laid-back culture to the Games, downplaying the importance of medals at every opportunity, and they present a refreshing contrast to the Type-A zealots who make up so much of the elite athlete population, the skaters and skiers who left home to live in training academies as middle schoolers. That crowd.
It's wonderful, and I find myself almost feeling guilty that I find their sports so boring. Sure, I'm as impressed as the next guy when Shaun White flies 40 feet above the halfpipe and spins around three times in midair. But that's just a trick. A baseball pitcher might impress me by juggling balls too, but ultimately I want to see him throw one past a batter.
So I'm happy to have snowboard cross, which finally turns snowboarding into a sport worth watching. Parallel giant slalom, in which snowboarders match-race on separate, identical courses, is pretty good too because the athletes are racing each other, not the clock. But it lacks the direct, same-course, incidental-contact-OK competition of snowboard cross.
The Turin Games have been getting drubbed in the ratings by regularly scheduled programming. The Olympics are no longer the TV draw they once were, and as the audience that digs the figure skating ages, that won't change.
The influx of extreme sports has done more for the extreme sports than it has for the Olympics so far -- snowboarders outnumbered skiers in the United States for the first time in 2004 -- but as these sports grow in popularity, the younger audience they bring in may give the Olympics that commercial shot in the arm after all.
Here's hoping the extreme sports authorities -- and you know who you are -- invent more sports that allow athletes to have at each other the way SBX does.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Hockey: Outdoors and polite [PERMALINK]
Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur visited Bill Clement and Ray Ferraro in the hockey studio Thursday. Brodeur's father, Denis, was the goalie on Canada's 1956 team in Cortina, Italy. The elder goalie is in Turin watching his son, and it's his first trip back to Italy in 50 years.
Brodeur said he thought his dad might visit Cortina, and Clement asked if the rink was still there. Picture this, people under 60:
"It was an outdoor rink when he played," Brodeur said.
Can you imagine? Olympic hockey, played outdoors. In fact, Denis Brodeur let in a famous goal against the Soviets, who won their first hockey gold that year, when he lost a puck in the lights. It hit him in the shoulder and bounced in.
Clement then showed a clip of an Italian player slamming into Brodeur as the goalie covered up the puck in Wednesday's game. The Italian gets up, says something to Brodeur and taps him on the pads with his stick.
"Big question," Clement said. "What was he saying?"
"Oh, that he was sorry, he didn't mean to," Brodeur laughed. "Like the guys in the NHL. They do the same thing."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Wardrobe malfunction of the night [PERMALINK]
Johnny Weir, United States.
The American came into the men's free skate in second place after a fine short program Tuesday, but he skated poorly Thursday and fell to fifth.
His performance wasn't nearly as bad as his outfit, though. It was a black one-piece with a torn-up teal, white, turquoise and purple chiffon, crepe paper and fishnet thing draped over his shoulders. He looked like he'd gotten tangled up in the decorations of a seafood restaurant in Miami Beach, circa 1987.
There was also some leftover crepe paper taped down his left pants leg. If you don't think Weir's lackluster performance was related to this hideous outfit, look no further than his countryman, Evan Lysacek.
That's the guy who wore a matador costume in the short program Tuesday and stunk out the joint. He must have gotten word that figure-skating outfits are improving, that the kitten-with-a-glue-gun design school was fading from favor, because he showed up Thursday in a fairly tasteful all-black ensemble that looked more or less like actual clothing.
And he skated beautifully.
So let's see: Matador costume, skate like a double-jointed hippo on crack. Black shirt and slacks, skate like a champ. Coincidence?
After Lysacek came Matt Savoie, another American, who wore an earth-tone Renaissance Faire getup, complete with a belted blouse. Savoie skated reasonably well, too.
Now, you might jump to the conclusion that Savoie's performance proves there's no connection between quality of outfit and quality of performance, but I've never been one to let an ugly fact or two get in the way of a beautiful theory.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Curling notes [PERMALINK]
You're never really finished when you try to list all the great things about curling, but here's another: It's the only sport where the participants at the highest level wear what would be considered high-fashion eyewear off the field -- on the field.
Some athletes in other sports, especially outdoor winter sports but also such stodgy games as baseball and football, wear sunglasses that are the height of sporting fashion. But the Italian men's skip and half the Swedish men's team, just to name a few, look like they just stepped out of a Fendi ad in GQ.
Well, if you ignore the rest of their outfits, though the Swedes' yellow warm-up jackets and flat-front black pants aren't half bad. Nice haircuts too, some of them. Male figure skaters could learn a thing or two from male curlers about how to dress themselves.
Why women curlers don't seem to have the same fashion sense as the boys is beyond this column.
Previous column: Smashing the script
- - - - - - - - - - - -