How the X Games Work

By: Stephanie Watson
Winter Sports Image Gallery Competitors in the Winter X Games race through the men's Skier X event. See more pictures of winter sports.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

There was a time when baseball, football and basketball were top sports with kids. But today's teens were raised on MTV and the Internet, and they don't always have the patience to sit through four quarters or nine innings. They want action. They want speed. They want extreme sports.

By the early 1990s, some Gen X and Y'ers had started tuning out of traditional sporting events and turning their attention to the skate parks and ski slopes instead, where mavericks like Tony Hawk and Shaun Palmer were taking sports to the edge. At the sports cable network ESPN, a programming executive named Ron Semiao took notice of this shift. In 1993, he envisioned a new televised sporting event -- a sort of Olympics on speed. It would feature extreme sports like inline skating, street luge and skateboarding. Athletes would jump, flip and spin, trying to outdo each other with faster and more outrageous tricks.


On June 24, 1995, the first Extreme Games (the name was changed to the X Games the following year) got into action in front of nearly 200,000 spectators in Middletown, R.I. The four-day festival featured 27 events in nine categories, including bungee jumping, eco-challenge, mountain biking and sky surfing. At first, not everyone took the idea seriously. One USA Today columnist wrote, "If you strap your best friend to the hood of a '72 Ford Falcon, drive it over a cliff, juggle three babies and a chain saw on the way down and land safely while performing a handstand, they'll tape it, show it and call it a new sport" [source: Pickert].

It was Semiao who had the last laugh, though. The X Games moved swiftly into the mainstream, generating interest from multimillion-dollar sponsors like Mountain Dew, Saturn and Taco Bell. The extreme sporting event became so popular that ESPN launched the Winter X Games in 1997, adding sports like snowboarding and snowmobiling. By 2002, the X Games had attracted a television audience of almost 63 million people [source: ESPN].



The X Games

The X Games were originally supposed to be a biennial event, but they became so popular that they're now held every year -- the Winter X Games in late January, and the Summer X Games in August. Locations change, but the Winter X games will be held in Aspen, Colo., until 2012, while the Summer X Games will be held in Los Angeles through 2009.

If you tune into the Winter X Games, you'll catch events like these:


  • Snowboard SuperPipe: Snowboarders ride from one side of a U-shaped pipe to another. As they catch air, they do spins and jumps. (Skiers also have their own SuperPipe competition.)
  • Snowmobile SnoCross: Snowmobilers race each other around a track filled with obstacles and jumps.
  • Slopestyle: This is a type of freestyle skiing in which the skier has to navigate through an obstacle course.
  • Skier X: A competition in which skiers go head to head, competing to be first while perfectly executing jumps and other tricks.
  • Big Air: Skiers gain momentum on a big ramp, then leap off it to perform amazing midair tricks.

At the Summer X Games, fans see events like these:

  • Supermoto: Motorbike racers compete around a combination dirt-and-paved track dotted with small jumps.
  • Bicycle Dirt Jumping: BMX bikers try to outdo each other while performing tricks on huge dirt hills.
  • Skateboarding Vert: While riding up and down a U-shaped ramp, skateboarders perform amazing flips and spins.
  • Wakeboarding Freeride: Part surfboarding, part waterskiing, competitors use the boat's wake to get in the air and do a variety of tricks.

X Games events may be unorthodox, but the prizes are just like those at the Olympics. For the winner, the top reward is a gold medal, followed by silver and bronze. There's also a much coveted cash prize. In past X Games, the prize money wasn't much to brag about. In fact, many extreme athletes complained that they were underpaid compared to athletes in more traditional sports. At the 2001 Summer X Games in Philadelphia, skateboarders went so far as to threaten a boycott. But in recent years, ESPN has grown deeper pockets. In 2008, the X Games doled out $3 million in prize money for the first time [source: Snowboard Magazine].

Winners can earn $50,000 for taking top prize in an event, but the money drops the lower a competitor places (10th place only pays $1,000 -- barely enough to cover the athletes' travel expenses) [source: Longman and Higgins].


Extreme Athletes in the X Games

Shaun White competes in a men's skateboard event during the Summer X Games in 2008.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Just who are the athletes who make the X Games' crowds gasp? Here are a few of the competitors who have established themselves as extreme sports legends over the years:

Shaun Palmer: This Kirkwood, Calif., native once said "I am the king!" [source: Snowboarder Magazine]. When it comes to snowboarding, he's right. By 2008, he had already competed in 10 X Games, and at 38, he was still dominating on the slopes. Palmer is tied for the most number of gold medals in Winter X Games history.


Shaun White: The carrot-topped athlete is a leader in not one, but two extreme sports -- skateboarding and snowboarding. In 2003, he became the first person ever to compete in both the Summer and Winter X Games in two different sports. In his 2008 gold medal run, he completed the first 1,260-degree (three-and-a-half rotation) spin in X Game history.

Andy Macdonald: Better known as "Andy Mac," this skateboarding legend has been competing in the X Games since it began, and he's earned more medals -- 17 (six of them gold) -- than anyone else in the games. Macdonald also has the distinction of being the only person ever to have skated inside the White House [source: Andy].

Terje Haakonsen: He's considered by some to be the greatest snowboarder in the history of the sport. Even though he doesn't compete much anymore, Haakonsen is still a legend.

Mike Metzger: Called the "Godfather" of freestyle motocross for the many innovations he introduced to the sport, Mike Metzger is probably best known for becoming the first rider to perform two backflips on a full-sized bike.

Tony Hawk: Even people who know nothing about skateboarding have heard of Tony Hawk. His name and face have graced everything from video games to an ESPN event (Tony Hawk's Gigantic Skatepark Tour). In 1999, he nailed the first ever 900 (two-and-a-half spins in midair) at the Summer X Games in San Francisco.

Fabiola Da Silva: Competing in an event dominated by men isn't easy, but Brazilian Fabiola Da Silva can hold her own among the boys. She's won eight inline skating medals (seven of them gold) at the X Games, and she was the first woman to execute a backflip in competition.

To learn more about the X Games and sports, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Extreme Sports." (Retrieved April 13, 2009.)
  • ESPN. "Shaun Palmer bio."
  • Harasta, Cathy. "Addition of Extreme Sports Help Transform U.S. into Winter Power." Dallas Morning News. Feb. 2, 2006.
  • Longman, Jere and Matt Higgins. "Rad Dudes of the World, Unite." The New York Times. Aug. 3, 2005, pg. C18.
  • Meanley, Erin. "Get Onboard for the Winter X Games." Scholastic Scope. Jan. 22, 2007. Volume 55, issue 10, pgs. 12-13.
  • Peterson, Dan. "Winter X Games Tricks: Are There Physical Limits?" LiveScience. Jan. 19, 2009.
  • Pickert, Kate. "The X Games." Time. Jan. 22, 2009.,8816,1873166,00.html
  • Ruibal, Sal. "X Games Roll From the Edge to the Burbs." USA Today. Aug. 17-19, 2001, pg. 1A.
  • Ruibal, Sal. "X Games vs. Olympics." USA Today. Jan. 17, 2002.
  • Sappenfield, Mark. "For X Games Generation, Olympic Yawn." The Christian Science Monitor. Aug.9, 2004.
  • Snowboard Magazine. "Largest Purse Awarded for Any Winter Multi-Action Sporting Event." Jan. 17, 2008.
  • Sosienski, Shanti. "A Decade of Excellence: The 10 Greatest Moments in Summer X Games History." Sports Illustrated for Kids. August 2004, Volume 16, Issue 8, pg. 33.
  • Wendel, Tim. "Going to Xtremes." USA Weekend. Aug. 17-19, 2001, pp. 6-7.
  • Wharton, David. "The Future of Pro Sports -- Generation Gap." Los Angeles Times. May 7, 2002, pg. D1.