Olympics' `X' factor

Edgier sports could energize Games and television ratings

June 21, 2008|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

In 30 years, bicycle motocross has gone from the homemade dirt tracks of Southern California to the Olympic stage.

Hoping to catch the eye of a younger audience and juice the interest level in the Summer Games that begin in six weeks, Olympic officials voted in 2003 to add BMX racing to the menu of sports in Beijing.

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, called BMX racing a "spectacular event" that would "definitely enhance the Olympic program."

For BMX riders and fans at this week's AST Dew Tour at M&T Bank Stadium, the promise of new Olympic sports is like a jolt of the caffeinated soft drink itself.

Chaz Ortiz, 14, an up-and-coming competitor, said he would like to see skateboarding added in time for the 2016 Summer Games, when the competition could be in his hometown of Chicago.

"It would be pretty cool, especially in my hometown; it would be exciting and fun to watch," he said. "I think people would really get into it."

For NBC Universal, which paid $894 million for the Beijing broadcast rights and is part-owner of the Action Sports Tour, having edgier, camera-friendly sports in addition to the traditional events only enhances its potential for profits.

"Now that you've got snowboarding and BMX racing, I think there's a desire to bring more sports in, whether it would be skateboarding or other disciplines. But it's wait-and-see," said Wade Martin, president of AST. "I think the desire is there on both sides. It's just a matter of time, I hope."

Already, there has been a bit of cross-pollination. Shaun White, 2006 Olympic gold medalist in snowboarding, won three skateboard events during last year's AST Dew Tour.

"It sure would be fun to see Shaun competing on the vert ramp in the Summer Games two years after a Winter Olympics," Martin said.

While the average age of Olympic athletes is 24, the average age of folks watching the action on TV worldwide is nearly double that.

Rogge, 66, said he would love to appeal to a younger crowd. "We need to hire more young people," Rogge told The Times of London. "If they have baggy pants and pink hair, that's OK."

To prime the pump, he helped create the Summer Youth Olympics that will debut in Singapore in 2010 for athletes ages 14 to 18.

But joining the Olympic family takes more than slipping on the rings and saying, "I Dew." In addition to promising to abide by voluminous rules, sports must jump through procedural hoops that include a lengthy evaluation of participation worldwide, sponsorships and media attention.

"There's a group that's put together the International Skateboarding Federation that's been organizing and putting the pieces together that will give them the platform to hopefully get into the Olympics at some point," Martin said. "Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, has indicated his desire to see skateboarding get in."

Yet the last time IOC members (average age: 62) considered changing the summer lineup, they pondered and then rejected a waiting list that included golf, rugby and squash.

By contrast, the ESPN-owned X Games this year went with what's hot, adding BMX Street, Moto X Best Whip, Women's Moto X Racing, Moto X Speed and Style, and BMX and Skateboard SuperPark.

Mark Quenzel, former senior vice president of programming and production for ESPN, explained that flexibility to adapt quickly gives the X Games their freshness. Since the first event in 1995, 10 sports have come and gone.

"The successful sports evolve. For every one you hit, there's between 10 and 20 misses. The glamour sport the first year was street luge. Spectators were 20 deep on the hill, top-to-bottom," said Quenzel, now an executive with Six Flags theme parks. " ... Some of the most popular sports of the early X Games - none of them are part of the games anymore."

AST's Martin agreed that non-Olympic competitions benefit by being able to quickly drop the duds, "but the difference between when the X Games started and today is that these sports are just that much more mature. If you see the sports that are in our tour, there are sports that have been around for the last 30 or 40 years. We're not looking to reinvent them every year. We think there's a strong heritage to these sports and a strong participation base."

The IOC is further boxed in by its edict that caps participation in the Summer Games at 28 sports, 300 events and 10,500 athletes.

Each time the IOC reviews its properties, it raises hopes among athletes who toil in obscure sports that one day their specialty will receive the Olympic stamp of approval. But given the cap, every new sport means someone else hears the equivalent of "Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook."

Even before the cap, sports got yanked from the field of play. Lacrosse lost its Olympic status 100 years ago after appearances in St. Louis and London. Ditto the sport of motorboating. Cricket and croquet were the one-hit wonders of the 1900 Summer Olympics.

But from 1936, when polo was voted off the Olympic island, until 2005, no sport was cut from the Summer Games. The most recent victims - softball and baseball - will be making their last appearances in August, although they could be reinstated in time for the 2016 Summer Games.

By that time, skateboarding could be ramping up.

"There's a movement in the industry to put the pieces in place that will allow them in," Martin said. "From there, it's up to the IOC."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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