FEATURE


I should say right off the bat that some of the most interesting-sounding events of the 2001 Summer X Games are held, for various reasons, over the six days directly preceding the X Games proper. These games include "Downhill BMX", which I caught on ABC the day after I returned and is basically a dirt bike course with lots of hills that are useful for jumping and wiping out many bikers at once in huge, tangled messes that recall some of my most humiliating childhood memories. (I'll say this and then no more: it involved training wheels, me and a long hill that ends in a lake.)

Other events I missed: "Wakeboarding" and "Street Luge," the latter of which sounds like a real kamikaze, cover-your-eyes type affair. Also, the wordy yet descriptive "Skateboard Street at the West Side of City Hall," which was of particular pride to X Games fans and social critic/weekly-newspaper op-ed types alike, mainly because Philadelphia has allegedly treated skaters unkindly in the past, arresting them and such, particularly in the City Hall area (which just happens to have improbably rad cement surfaces and steps and railings way-conducive to tricks). And now suddenly when they can make a lot of money off the kids, the city is going so far as to INSTALL railings in advantageous spots as to facilitate bodacious stunts. The irony is not lost on anyone and is noted again and again and again.

I should also say right off the bat that I only attended the X Games (proper) for two days/nights out of the total seven and that one time I sat in a corner and read a book for an hour or so. Plus once I disappeared for 2+ hours to see a movie. What I'm trying to say is that although I plan on doing my best here and even possibly engaging in some hasty generalizations about the X Games, if something really weird happened during the rest of the week, or while I was reading or watching a movie (i.e., free corndogs for everybody; all Asians get in half-price), I wouldn't know anything about it.

Furthermore, I aim to refrain from using the letter "X" in a punny fashion. The Philly publications I noticed had already exhausted the following: X-tra, X-traordinary, X-perience, X-plore, X-citement, X-tend, X-uberant, X-hibits, X-cetera, X-ploits, X-tenuating. Not that I couldn't if I wanted to. (Fine, then: "X-crement".)

And lest you think this piece a waste of your time, let me reassure you that the X Games announcers told us repeatedly that the 2001 Summer X Games were without doubt "the biggest, baddest X Games in the history of the X Games." So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The 2001 Summer X Games are held at Philadelphia's First Union Center (charmingly called the "F.U. Center" by natives), the home of the 76ers and the Flyers and directly across the way from Veteran's Field, home of the Phillies and the Eagles. The games are held both inside and outside the F.U. Center. Two rather serious adjustments have been made to the F.U. Center's parking lot. First, a large skate park has been constructed. It is maybe 50 square feet and looks a lot like how you might imagine a giant microchip would look; it is square-ish and filled with illogical angles and slopes and hills and depressions. There are plenty of 45- and 90-degrees present, as well as railings conspicuously missing their accompanying steps or sidewalks, as well as a half-dome depression dubbed "the Liberty Bowl."

Right next to the skate park is a Moto-X (pronounced "moto-cross," which should've been obvious to you but probably wasn't if you're anything like me) course. It is constructed of dirt and features large dirt hills and banked dirt walls, which pretty much makes it the kind of place as a kid I would've pimped out my mother to play on. Because dirt can only do so much (hey, it's dirt), there are also four steep ramps set up in presumably strategic places. The cement that usually covers this section of the parking lot has been removed, and the course has literally been dug into the ground. Lampposts reading "B4" and "C11" have their large square bases exposed, deep down in the earth. It’s a destruction that must make local 76ers and Flyers fans shake their fists.

When I get to the X Games, I go to the skate park, where skaters are practicing. It is not very exciting. This is the first of many times I will be duped into watching practice. Half of the X Games experience is watching athletes leisurely prepare for the actual pre-lims and finals, and while this is admittedly better than watching corn grow, it's still a snoozer. But they kinda got you by the balls because the crowds are so thick that once you wait in line and find an empty spot in the bleachers and realize "shit, this is just PRACTICE," you're pretty much screwed because if you leave you'll never get a seat again as long as you live.

So pretty much the stands are filled to capacity all day long. I should mention here that the X Games are absolutely free. How they can get away with this is beyond me, but I'm sure it has something to do with the grotesque amount of cross-promotion going on. Aside from like a gazillion banners, there is an entire vendor park with booths offering free drinks and games and caps and shirts, as well as an ROTC booth seeing how many pull-ups you can do (voluntarily!), not to mention some sort of bone-chilling ride that straps your beloved child into a giant rubber band and flings said child all over creation, while you scream something along the lines of "Stop the ride!" and "Oh, the humanity!"

The major X Games sponsors include ESPN, ESPN 2, ABC, Taco Bell, AT&T, Motorola, Adidas, Sony PlayStation and Mountain Dew. The X Games announcers manage to mention these sponsors in sly, creative ways that don't make it sound like the X Games are beholden to The Man. I feel certain that to a certain degree this near-subliminal pill gets swallowed pretty much whole by the largely teen audience because the announcers themselves have bleached, spiked hair and earrings and wear sunglasses, even while indoors, and black T's with short, blunt words that are somehow ambiguously confrontational; words like "Pud," "Tool," "Clod," and "Chunk." What these words refer to I have no idea, but I think their simple lack of reference is what makes them anti-establishment. (This is almost too bad to mention, but I saw a shirt that read in big, block letters, "ENDORSED BY NO ONE." Then, on the back, "New Balance Footwear.")

Of course, it goes without saying that the X Games are beholden to The Man big-time, like nobody's business (the athletes are competing for nearly $1 million in prize money, for starters). All these sports, which are sort of twisted offshoots of more traditional sports, were considered "fringe" only until they gained enough underground momentum to become financially viable, whereupon they were swiftly incorporated into the mainstream in 1995 under the protective wing of ESPN and premiered as a 9-day event called "the Extreme Games," which now sounds almost cute. This is all fine and dandy and is exactly the same kind of thing that happens to a good independent film (like, say, Clerks) that is bought by Miramax, which is a subsidiary of Disney. If there's money to be had, etc.

Anyhoo, the size of the crowd in Philly is somewhat problematic because of the heat. It's technically around 90 degrees but must be at least 10 degrees hotter due to the number of warm-blooded mammals, plus some sort of refraction/reflection principle involving all the metal and shiny surfaces surrounding the games, the least of which is not the F.U. Center itself, which is your standard-issue shimmering silver monument that looks kind of like a bank. What canNOT be explained is why, despite all the extremely tall structures everywhere (bleachers, towers, F.U. Center), there is NO SHADE anywhere. It boggles the mind. It is empirically impossible. It is like high noon 12+ hours a day.

Finally, I find it—at the east end of the Moto-X course, clearly labeled: "Shade Area." "Shade Area" is a white tent about the total size of two mini-vans and with absolutely no view of any kind of sporting event whatsoever. Instead, there’s a breathtaking panorama of the back of the porta-potties. There are only five people in the Shade Area, and three of them are in baby strollers.

To beat the heat, there are also several tents labeled "Misting Tents" that blow misty water down from nozzles. These are actually rather effective, although a pain for those of us who wear glasses or are carrying sensitive electronic equipment. I have a digital camera on me, which, incidentally, I thought I was going to have confiscated on Day 2, when there were so many people (supposedly 10,000) entering at once that they cordoned us off for 45 minutes and made us walk a half-mile through one of those entry-maze things instead of letting us just flood in like zombies, as we did on Day 1. I'm not sure how this is supposed to help; perhaps the heat exposure is designed to make us groggy and more susceptible to soft drink sales pitches. Instead, it put everyone in an unusually foul mood, baking to death and muttering cuss words. In the words of a phat adolescent directly in front of me: "This is stupid, yo."

The Moto-X Freestyle is amazing to watch and hands-down the most interesting thing the X Games had to offer, on account of it being almost exactly like a circus had come to town minus the unsettling presence of carnies. The men zoomed around the dirt course, spitting up dirt into photographers' faces (chortling, I bet), then launched off a ramp into the air, where they performed ridiculous, acrobatic feats before landing. These feats included handstands on the handlebars, lying down on top of the bike, and jumping off the back of the bike and hanging on to the very rear of the seat with one hand before pulling themselves back on again—all in mid-air, mind you.

These are the kinds of tricks that, if executed incorrectly, could result in some serious mangling and disfigurement, not to mention some pretty irreversible trauma for thousands of kids with front row seats. And despite the announcers' harrowing account of each rider's recently-severed spinal cord or broken neck, none of them wipe out. I account this to two important Moto-X rules, both of which you'll want to follow to a T if you desire to become one of these daredevils. 1) Hang-time. These guys can get like five or six seconds of hang-time, which is integral if you plan on getting back on your bike before you touch down—after all, somebody's got to drive the thing. 2) For the love of God, DO NOT LET GO OF THE BIKE.

I go inside the F.U. Center, where I am unfortunately not the first to discover that you can see the Moto-X from the air-conditioned second level lobby. Inside the arena, I find the men's "Aggressive In-Line Vert" pre-lims going on. I admit that I have a beef with the phrase "aggressive in-line," a phrase so pumped-up and masculine that it reeks of inadequacy, much like the term "action figure" is just a fancy way to say "doll." They're freaking roller-bladers, for crying out loud. Anyway, they're doing their thing on the usual half-pipe, flipping over in the air and landing on their feet while facing backwards, reaching the other side and flipping head-over-heels again.

It's impressive in a perfunctory sort of way, but after the oh-my-god-we're-all-gonna-die thrills of Moto-X Freestyle, watching roller-bladers go back and forth is kind of like watching the galleon ride at Six Flags. What is more interesting is the arena's Megatron (the Sony Toyota Comcast Megatron), which supplies me with close-ups of the skaters, who are unbelievably young (I'm talking like 15, 16 years old here) but have a sort of sensitive fearlessness to them. They remind me of my best friend from grade school, Nathan, who got beat up all the time by his older brothers and had gotten to a point where he simply would not cry even if they cut his eyelids off with scissors and was fiercely—almost stupidly—competitive because of it.

There's something sort of wounded and scrappy and sexy in a River Phoenix sort of way about kids like this, and it's clear why they are so popular with the kind of youths who by and large make up the base audience of the X Games—teen punk rockers and outcasts. They have exciting hairdos and unexpected make-up. The boys tend to wear wife-beater tank tops and sport wispy facial hair in patterns best described as "creative." If they're in decent shape, they go shirtless, whenever possible. There are all manners of caps, chains and sunglasses. I want to tell some of them that guys with glasses never look good with ponytails.

The girls streak their hair and display startling amounts of cleavage, some going so far as to wear mini-skirts and bikini tops and things that show midriffs. With the excessive amount of sweat covering everybody, a lot of these strapless devices threaten to slip right off, and there is a constant tugging to avoid this. The girls carry a general expression of being like way over this scene, which is not surprising, since from what I can gather they're just here because this is where the boys are.

I would say 65% of the people at the X Games have tattoos. I'm going to try and be as honest as possible about this and say right up front that I'm no Armand Assante, either. But the teenage contingent at the 2001 Summer X Games is, for the most part, relatively unattractive. This is of particular note to me, whose impression of Philadelphians (aside from having more interracial couples per capita than I've ever seen before, which bodes well) is that they are on the whole of above-average attractiveness, in a sort of solid if dullish airline pilot sort of way. (Then again, my girlfriend recollects a study naming Philadelphia the most obese city in America. But I have my suspicions her snub stems from a particularly grisly adolescent photo her parents took of her in Philadelphia, a photo involving braces and large hair—you can imagine the rest.)

Coming from junior high/high school, these kids definitely know how attractive they are/are not, and they appear to mask what is considered unattractive about them (no chin, weird nose, strangely-placed eyes) with much more overt ugliness (stringy goatees, piercings, tattoos) to make their unattractiveness seem more like an intentional "look," like they planned it this way and just don't give a shit. Similarly, many young women resolve their awkward or overweight bodies by dressing super-sexy and wearing tank tops with things like "Hottie" printed on them.

They have all come to support athletes who are similar in age and looks—a good chunk of the 350 X Games competitors are scrawny, goofy-looking kids with big teeth or pimples or tattoos or dreds, proving that even non-buff slackers can be revered. As further example, witness "Speed Climbing," an event that is way the hell over in a far corner of the parking lot. It involves one of those big, plastic climbing walls, only this one is about 80 feet tall. Aside from a team of IMAX filmmakers, Speed Climbing does not draw much of a crowd. There two reasons for this: 1) The climbers are too good. It takes about five minutes to strap the climber into a harness-device and then about seven seconds for the climber to reach the summit. It would be more exciting if there were some American Gladiators chasing them, trying to pull them down by the ankles. 2) And this is my point: the climbers are old (30+). They are also balding, graying and have long, massive upper bodies with arms that can be described without irony as "pythons." They are "real" athletes with families and health insurance and have little in common with a 13-year-old malcontent.

When the Speed Climbers win, they take off their gloves and reach for their mineral water, grumbling, thinking about car payments, or tantric sex, or the new Sting album. When a kid skateboarding on the half-pipe wins, he flings his hands up in victory, the crowd goes wild, and then they move quietly off to the side, pack up their board and helmet and blend into the crowd, truly indistinguishable from their fans.

Skateboarding, by the way, is better than Aggressive In-Lining because of the added element of an apparatus that often flies treacherously out of control, resulting in youngsters flopping loudly to the hard surface, looking up dazedly in search of their AWOL board. Sometimes the tricks go so terribly wrong that the falling skateboarders, in order to quickly clear the floor of painful objects, violently hurl their boards into the crowd or zing them at the heads of the "Event Staff" volunteers, who pretty much stand around looking stylish and in my opinion could use a skateboard zinging toward their heads every now and again.

Across the arena at the exact same time, practice for the Bike Stunt competition has begun. Dirt Biking is basically a PG-rated Moto-X with far less chance of permanent brain damage but far greater chance of getting viciously racked in the nuts or having one of those sprawling, wide-eyed wipe-outs I mentioned earlier in conjunction with a painful personal experience. Only here, when you wipe out, it's like the ultimate middle school nightmare—literally THOUSANDS of your peers are watching, plus something like 150 million more on TV. Stunt bikes themselves are funny looking things; they're really small and have low seats and tiny handlebars and little mini-wheels and tend to make anyone riding them look kind of dopey and way too big for the bike.

Before catching the train to the F.U. Center on Day 2, I paused at City Hall to watch a bunch of amateur skaters, boarders and bikers do their thing. Like their heroes, these kids are almost constantly wiping out. After the myriad of spectacular crashes I've seen at the X Games, watching these amateurs is a real nail-biter. Because if one of them spins out of control and snaps their arm off or something, I'm morally responsible to cradle the injured and whisper stuff like, "It's gonna be OK, Johnny" until their friends get back with the EMS.

Back inside the F.U. Center, an amusing thing is happening. While the skateboarding and bike stunting kids are skating and stunting (respectively), the Megatron is pumping out the announcer's voice from the Moto-X Freestyle competition going on outdoors. About once every five minutes, the announcer riles up the outdoor crowd, making them whoop and cheer and "Let's hear it Philadelphia!" etc. The funny thing is that a large portion of the indoor audience thinks the announcer is speaking to them, and they dutifully respond, leaping to their feet and cheering about ostensibly nothing, as if they have all gone collectively insane. This continued throughout my visit, and likely throughout the week.

Finally, it is time for Day 2's big event, the Aggressive In-Line Finals, broadcast live on ESPN. The field has been narrowed down to 10, each of whom gets to skate twice and keep his best score. The first guy, a kid from Holland, scores 74.25 due to a spill that has him sliding around the half-pipe on his belly like an otter. A boy from the Netherlands scores 84.5, then American Mark Englehart takes the lead with 87.75, in between shots of his dad applauding, teary-eyed.

Along the way, two announcers make constant reference to how extreme it all is. It reminds me of the overkill verbiage of the short-lived XFL—each time Jesse Ventura used the phrase "smash-mouth football," it became more and more obvious that it wasn't. (The old maxim: If you're cool, you don't need to advertise it.) This is why the whole idea of "extreme," which has gone from bungee jumping to Mtn. Dew commercials to the label on my deodorant, feels so damn campy. The same guys in my high school class who had those "No Fear" stickers on their trucks were precisely the guys who had something to fear—namely, that someone somewhere might one day mistake them for cowards.

Shane Yost from Tasmania takes the lead with 88.25, in my opinion partly due to Ozzy's "Crazy Train," which is by far the bitching-est tune they've played so far. The X Games employ a numbing soundtrack of punk/heavy metal "hits"; a soundtrack that is, in a word, relentless. In the finals, each skater gets his own tune, apparently drawn at random, usually something like Poison or Danzig. But I swear to God that the timeless kick-ass rock and roll of "Crazy Train" (am I alone in my feelings here?) made Yost's run feel better than it was, and the judges, understandably moved, scored a little high.

Deep into the second round, hometown favorite Matt Lindenmuth, a Pennsylvania native, prepares to do his last run. On his first run, he attempted the deadly double-backflip and fell on his face twice, which is doubly painful because a downed skater has no momentum and must struggle awkwardly to the top of the half-pipe via the side staircase (while wearing skates), the clock ticking down the whole time. It was a depressing performance.

Lindenmuth looks down at the half-pipe. And suddenly the opening guitar riff of GnR's "Sweet Child 'o' Mine" blasts forth. (Take a moment to imagine this riff.) And it builds like it does, and the drums start thumping slowly, louder and louder, and I can feel it building up not just in me but in everyone, in the thousands of people all around me, and you can see on the Megatron close-up that Lindenmuth is breathing faster and faster and despite himself starting to picture himself as the hero, almost smiling, and the drums get louder and louder louder louder—

And the song kicks in and Lindenmuth takes off, and suddenly I'm quite sure he's going to do it. We're all sure. His skating suddenly takes on epic dimension. Axl Rose making our skulls vibrate. And Lindenmuth builds up, you can see it coming, he reaches the top of the half-pipe and twirls over twice—

He hits down hard, almost maintains it, then wipes out. The effect on the crowd is devastating. Lindenmuth scrambles to the top of the stairs, time running out, and swoops down, and tries again. And again, he wipes out, clutching his arm in pain as the clock pathetically peters out.

None of us can really believe it. Turns out, it's just a game after all. Just a sporting event where some people win and some people lose and we're just spectators, and none of it really matters in any sort of meaningful way.

But then the most unexpected thing: Lindenmuth is back at the top of the half-pipe looking down, shaking his head to himself. And "Sweet Child 'o' Mine" is not only still playing but reaching that part near the end, that crescendo, building and building, and the crowd sees that Lindenmuth is thinking about trying it again, not for points but just for him and for us, and the announcer confirms it, and Slash is wailing on his guitar, and the ramifications of what it's going to mean not just to me but to poor Lindenmuth if he wipes out again is too much to bear, and I wish he wasn't even attempting it.

He sails down, gaining speed, up and down the half-pipe, and then at the exact fucking moment that Axl screams into the final "Whether we go" part, Lindenmuth does the double back flip and the son of a bitch LANDS IT. And the crowd is on its feet and the sound is deafening and Slash and Axl and Duff and the whole gang are going at it like there's no tomorrow and there's a sweeping heady crying feeling that we are all part of this boy's victory which is bigger than any sport or any one of us. And indeed, for this one fleeting, pretty moment, we are.