For X Games generation, Olympic yawn
ALAMEDA, CALIF. — Sitting atop the warped concrete landscape of Alameda Point Skate Park, Walter Huth narrows his eyes beneath his dirty mesh baseball cap, searching for anything at all good to say about the grandest event in world sport. The Olympics are drawing near, he knows, but he can't bring himself to care. The diving is OK, he grudgingly admits, but "watching people run is kind of boring."
Then, his dark eyebrows arch up in a "Eureka!" moment. "The winter Games are tight," he grins, a mouthful of braces. "I like the snowboarding."
Two years ago in Salt Lake, the winter Olympics embraced a largely ambivalent generation of teens and 20-somethings through the expanding imprint of "stunt sports" - events that mix the grace of athletic achievement with the attitude of an iPod. Yet at the summer Olympics, beginning Friday in Athens, the X Games ethic is completely absent.
NBC, which holds the US broadcasting rights to the Games through 2012, says it doesn't need stunt sports, since everyone can already find something they like in the summer Games. The International Olympic Committee says it can't accommodate them, with the 17-day smorgasbord already packed with 301 medal events from pentathlon to ping-pong.
But the success of snowboarding in Salt Lake was overwhelming, and if NBC's 1,210 hours of coverage in Athens fail to make inroads into that most desirable of demographics - viewers 18 to 34 years old - X sports could yet emerge onto the Olympic stage.
"There's a delicate balance between chasing fads and supporting tradition," says Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center in Eugene, Ore. "But the summer Games need to be open to evolving much like the winter Games."
Even at NBC, there is no question that the network has work to do. "Eighteen to 34 [years old] is the soft [spot] of the Olympic audience," says John Miller of the NBC Agency, the network's marketing arm. "That's who we have to go after."
The sense among marketers is that NBC lost many of these viewers at the 2000 Sydney Games, when it incorporated more profiles and features to attract women. The network's solution in Athens is a healthy helping of X Games attitude - even if it lacks the sports to go with it.
Music and humor will play an amplified role on the set, and promotional spots have made beach volleyball mavens Kerri Walsh and Misty May minor deities during the run-up to the Games (although an injury might prevent May from playing). "Beach volleyball has that rock-and-roll flavor. It's the biggest hybrid," says Mr. Miller. "Our tone is decidedly young."
At the moment, however, that seems to be as far as either NBC or the Olympic movement is willing to go. After all, the summer Games - unlike the winter version - are not wrapped in the mists of the obscure. Absent are events descended from the ancient traditions of Nordic reindeer herders. Instead, there is running, and jumping, and swimming, and throwing - and the endless permutation of events arising from them. In other words, stuff any American kid has done.
"There is a sense of familiarity with the sports in the summer Games," says Miller, characterizing his marketing motto of these Games as: "This is a sport you've done, but never like this."
That's true for Walter, a former swimmer. But frankly, he isn't particularly interested in those sports done any way. For him, the recipe for the remaining days of summer has a pleasing certainty to it. Drop in. Ollie. Grind. Repeat. The Olympics are no part of that.
From this vantage point, that's not surprising. On a spit of abandoned Navy land that juts into San Francisco Bay, revealing a panorama of Oakland and San Francisco, massive container ships and the restless river of summer fog pouring through the Golden Gate, Alameda Point Skate Park has a certain otherworldly feel. It is a one-square-block homage to angst set in the midst of isolation - an independent teenage republic of skaters and trick bikers swarming in subtly choreographed anarchy.
The Olympics are not only on the other side of the planet. They're in a different universe.
"I wouldn't want skateboarding to be in the Olympics," says Mike Pierce, echoing several others here. "It's too commercialized already."
But he adds," I'd probably watch it anyway, though."
But it's questionable whether, say, BMX biking - which in fact will be added to the sports roster at the 2008 Beijing Olympics - could provide the same sort of boost to the summer Games that snowboarding did to the winter Games. NBC desperately needed another marquee event during the winter Games to buttress figure skating. The summer Games, by contrast, are overbooked.
"The winter Olympics has always been short on events," says David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian.
Yet even here at the skate park, the coming Olympics are not wholly without support. In between breathless attempts at landing his front-side 180 jump, Louis Hennie pauses just long enough to call virtually every event "tight" - from sprinting to swimming to gymnastics.
And NBC's Miller says his network isn't about to move one of these signature events out of prime time to make room for skateboarding. Moreover, the International Olympic Committee has made it clear that no new event will be added to the summer Olympics unless an old event is eliminated - a process Mr. Wallechinsky calls "almost impossible."
Yet no one thinks the Olympics have reached a final and unalterable state. New events will surely be added at some point. If X sports are to be considered, they must first survive the test of time.
"You want to address opportunities to take advantage of growing areas of interest, but you also want to make sure they're not going to disappear," says Mr. Swangard. "You want to see proof of staying power."