X Games kick off as COVID looms and Olympics approach
X Games Aspen kicked off Friday. The event comes as an omicron-fueled COVID-19 surge begins to recede locally and only two weeks before several of the X Games athletes head to the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing.
It was a strangely quiet scene as Jamie Anderson, the so-called queen of the X Games, clinched the slopestyle gold medal at the 2021 X Games.
There was no crowd — due to concerns about COVID-19.
Anderson is excited to be back this year for what many athletes consider to be the pinnacle of winter sporting events.
“X Games always has a really good vibe,” she said. “They've got the best park, really good pipe, jumps are always on point.”
Fans, too, are back.
Over the years, X Games Aspen has annually drawn more than 100,000 over several days, according to the event’s media center.
X Games media representatives declined to share expectations for this year’s turnout, but vice president Tim Reed addressed a COVID question at a news conference Tuesday.
“We're all thrilled to have the fans back,” he said. “When we made that decision, it was kind of that pre-omicron surge. … We were more debating, like, do we do a big music thing? How big do we actually want to go this year?”
The event is going pretty big. On top of an in-person audience at the competition, the X Games Music Week kicked off at the Belly Up venue on Wednesday and runs through Sunday.
All people ages 12 and older who want to attend X Games concerts and competitions must show proof of full vaccination, and masks are required on the shuttle rides to Buttermilk Mountain.
“I think we all feel good, like, in terms of the management and all the protocols — the safety,” Reed said. “We're essentially operating under the same safety protocols we did last year for this year, you know, outside of fans being able to come — but fans will have to be vaccinated.”
The X Games’ COVID precautions are not as strict as those for the Beijing Winter Olympics, where several of the X Games athletes will also compete.
Scotty James, who won silver in last year’s X Games snowboard superpipe, will represent Australia at his fourth Winter Olympics.
“I think X Games is always a really good benchmark for us competitively,” he said. “You get to see some cards revealed, which is always nice from a competitive standpoint, and you get a week to prepare for the Olympics.”
Eleven Colorado athletes were slated to compete in the X Games. Two of them are from the Roaring Fork Valley and will make appearances in Beijing.
Seventeen-year-old newcomer Hanna Faulhaber, a resident of Basalt, is expected to make waves skiing the superpipe.
Also competing in the superpipe is Aspen skier Alex Ferreira, 27, who won a silver medal in the halfpipe at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Ferreira and Faulhaber are expected to represent Team USA in Beijing.
There’s another storyline to track at both events: British American Gus Kenworthy, 30, is the first athlete to land a triple cork at the X Games. The feat was accomplished at the 2014 X Games in Aspen.
Kenworthy will stop competing after he represents Great Britain at the Beijing Olympics.
“I have five medals, … but I don't have any gold,” he said. “And it's always, always, always been my dream to win X Games gold. So, that is very much what I'm going to be fighting for this weekend and also in Beijing.”
This year's medals were, as usual, handcrafted by Ridgeway-based artist Lisa Issenberg.
She took a different approach to this year’s design, after a conversation with an ESPN official.
“He wants the athletes to be able to take away something — a medal — that really brings them back to the beauty of Aspen, and typically that would be the mountains,” she said.
But this year’s design revolves around the Aspen tree.
“He had the idea of just the aspen grove. … Those tall, beautiful, perfect, white, round trees.”
She incorporated the idea into the very material of the award — a disc of sustainably sourced aspen, encased in steel pipe. The metal exterior includes an X-shaped opening, so that the Aspen wood pops visually.
Issenberg changes the design every year.
“It's not a very good business model,” she said. “But it's a good model for, I guess, life — keep things new, keep things fresh for everybody. And it keeps me interested in what I do. It's exciting to have a new design.”
Athletes started earning those medals late Friday with women’s snowboard slopestyle.
Other competitions include superpipe (Friday evening), big air (Saturday evening), and women’s ski knuckle huck and men’s ski superpipe (late Sunday).