SOCHI, Russia — Without them the U.S. would have just a few gold medals, and NBC would have trouble getting the younger eyeballs it needs to justify the $775 million it spent to land the Winter Olympics.
With them it sure doesn’t look like Sonja Henie’s Olympics anymore.
Snowboarders flying upside down high above the halfpipe. Skicross racers crashing in tandem and sliding across the line in a photo finish. Thrills and spills that make the bobsled look so yesteryear.
The Winter Olympics have morphed into the Winter X Games. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
They’re no longer just stoked to be here. Extreme athletes are changing the look of the games, and shaping them for future generations to come.
“I think the Olympics needed this energy,” said Gretchen Bleiler, a snowboarder who cut her competitive chops in the X Games before winning silver in the 2006 Olympics. “The Olympics looked at ESPN’s X Games and saw the enormous popularity and they wanted in on something that was new, exciting and fresh.”
Just six Olympics after the first freestyle skiing medals were awarded in 1992, athletes in Sochi will split 60 medals across both freestyle and snowboarding events. Another 24 medals will be given out in short track speedskating which, if not technically an X Games event, sure looks like one.
No, snowmobile aerials won’t be added at the next games, and the luge won’t be combined with the biathlon in some crazy new sport. But there’s a good chance another 12 extreme athlete medals will be available with the addition of ski and snowboard big air competitions.
“When the X games came to be in the ’90s it sort of gave a little bit of a wake-up call to the Olympics and said these are the sports kids are into these days,” said Mike Douglas, a Canadian known as “The Godfather of freeskiing.” “I watch all the sports during the Olympics but something like two-man luge I shake my head and wonder why. In skicross or boardcross there’s a lot of action and it’s easy to see who is going to win.”
Adding extreme sports has been the mission of the IOC since the early 1990s, when even the stodgiest Olympic officials began realizing that there was a need to grow the audience for the Winter Games. Skiing aerials came first, then snowboarding in the 1998 games, and more events have been added to each in almost every Olympics since.
Medal counts have soared. There will be a total of 294 medals awarded in Sochi, compared to just 138 in the Calgary Games of 1988.
“It just gives more options for kids to be inspired and to have that Olympic gold,” said Julia Mancuso, a four-time U.S. Olympic medalist. “The kids are looking up to those other sports that were just X Games or action sports before. It’s cool to have different avenues to do your best. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Nothing at all, especially if you root for the red, white and blue at the Olympics. Going into the weekend, six of the nine gold medals won by Americans were in snowboarding or freestyle skiing, and the sports accounted for 12 of the 27 medals overall.
In the extreme sports added for the first time at the Sochi games, the numbers were even better. Americans won five new events and got silver in another.
The new sports have kept the U.S. near the top of the overall medal chart in an Olympics where speedskaters were nearly shut out and figure skaters won only two medals. But the results may prove fleeting.
“It will be very difficult to maintain that level of medal production for the U.S. going forward,” said Steve Roush former chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “The rest of the world is catching up.”
There are some in traditional events who think the Olympics have gone far enough. An Olympics built on the foundation of skating, skiing and jumping, they argue, should be enough.
“You don’t need more new sports,” said Hans Pum, sports director of the Austrian ski federation. “We have a few new ones, but that (should be it). Don’t always bring in more and more.”
Even with the new sports, there will always be a spot for the competitions that were the core of the first Winter Games in 1924. Henie, the Norwegian figure skater, gave the games a boost by winning three gold medals in a row beginning in 1928, and figure skating is reliably one of the most watched events of the Olympics.
“I don’t think there’s a risk to the other, more traditional disciplines,” said Paul Kristofic, vice president of Alpine Canada. “You’ll always have ones that have been around for a long, long time, and some of them have a cult-like following out there and I don’t think they’ll die.“