When sports fans tune in to the X Games for the first time, many of them leave the experience with the same nagging question: Why is there so much hugging?
On the vert ramp. In the park course. Next to the Big Air ramp. And these aren't congrats-on-the-big-raise, one-arm back taps. We're talking international-terminal-at-LAX embraces. Hugs can substitute for precontest good luck, midevent encouragement or post-win congratulations. But the most shocking thing about all this hugging isn't where or when it's happening. It's that it's taking place between competitors.
"I think people outside of skateboarding have a hard time with that," says 16-year-old skateboarder Mitchie Brusco. "In basketball or football, you want to beat your opponent, but action sports are different. At a contest, I go out with the mindset that I'm skating with my friends and learning new things. When someone lands a good run, every rider has a smile on his face. I don't have rivals."
But is that sentiment sincere? Or are action sports athletes who say they "are just riding for fun," "are only focused on the art of skating" or "don't care about winning" simply covering up for a lack of podium finishes?
"It's honest," Brusco says. "Even some people within skateboarding have a hard time with that idea. But I just want to improve, and I want everyone to have a good time. That's how a lot of skateboarders look at competition."
Brusco is not playing coy with his answer. Like many athletes, he views competition in its purest form, as something internal, a competition within himself to be better than he was yesterday, to be his best self, not to beat his best friends. That's a lens through which many action sports athletes view competition, especially those whose finish is determined by a set of judges with subjective opinions. Place too much emphasis on your competitors, and you might lose focus on your own performance; place too much hate on the guy who finished ahead of you, and it might be focused in the wrong direction.
"I never felt like I had a rival," says BMX Vert competitor and X Games analyst Dennis McCoy. "Dave Mirra and I traded wins for a while, but when I lost to him, I felt like I lost to my friend. I was happy for him. Rivalries might be great for TV ratings, but it's better for the sport when there aren't crazy rivalries between guys who hate one another."
Sports without rivals? Competition without contempt? It's a tough concept to grasp, especially for fans of mainstream sports whose dialogue is shaped by the current battles taking place between their favorite teams and individual sports stars. What would the Steelers be without the Ravens? Who are the Lakers without the Celtics? Federer without Nadal? Phil without Tiger? Kelly Slater without Andy Irons.
As that last example illustrates, action sports are not all sunshine and bear hugs. There have been rivalries in action sports. Great rivalries, like Irons-Slater in surfing, James Stewart and Chad Reed in motocross, and Travis Pastrana and Brian Deegan in freestyle motocross that developed over time, were based in respect and fueled by mutual dislike between two very different, highly competitive athletes with styles that appealed to a diverse set of fans. Today, new rivalries are emerging on the RallyCross track (Liam Doran vs. Toomas Heikkinen) and Street League courses (Nyjah Huston vs. Paul Rodriguez). But too often, competitors and commentators believe focusing too much on rivalries will cast a negative cloud over action sports -- even when those rivalries are based in respect and friendly competition -- and shrug off those storylines.
"I think rivalries are good for our sports," five-time BMX Park champ Daniel Dhers says. "It builds drama. It builds a crowd. It's something to cover and watch. I love basketball, but I don't want to tune in if the Nuggets are playing Orlando. But if Miami and Los Angeles are playing, I will watch every time."
As the X Games has expanded to include more racing and fewer freestyle events, the we're-all-BFFs blanket has been thrown over athletes who simply don't see competition that way. In a freestyle contest, landing a new trick on the vert ramp, stomping a personal-best run in BMX Park or progressing the sport to new heights in Moto X Step Up can be as fulfilling for an athlete as taking first place. But that's rarely the case when a finish line is involved.
"In women's Enduro X, we're still racing the track, so it's friendly competition," says Tarah Gieger, the only woman who competes in both Enduro X and Moto X Racing at X Games. "But Supercross is more cutthroat. In tighter courses, like the one we race at the Staples Center, the only way to pass somebody is to bang bars or run into them and slow them down. In racing, that back-and-forth builds up over time and creates huge rivalries."
In racing circles, Gieger's name is rarely spoken without mention of 2009 X Games silver medalist Jessica Patterson. Their battle has become such a storyline, their rivalry so heated, that when both women line up in a start gate, few fans stray from their seats.
"It pushes you during the week because you don't want her to have the satisfaction of beating you," Gieger says. "It creates more drive and, because of that, we have progressed the sport a lot. You don't have friends on the starting line in head-to-head racing." Make no mistake: Races rarely end in hugs.
"When I have rivalries in racing, I hate them. You don't talk to them or look at them and you want to crash them," freestyle motocross rider and RallyCar driver Brian Deegan says. "With freestyle, they're your buddies. You respect their skills and the risks they take, but deep inside you want to beat them. Racing is different. You have to hate your rivals."
And the more heated the rivalries, the more popular the event. When Moto X Step Up joined the X Games lineup in 2000, few people, including the athletes, believed the event had legs. But the competition was easy to follow and the lack of judging -- coupled with exciting rivalries that developed between Matt Buyten and Jeremy McGrath and, later, between Buyten and Ronnie Renner -- has maintained the events at the top of the X Games ratings. This year, it has been one of the most talked about events at the three international stops, thanks to a rekindling of the Buyten-Renner rivalry and the emergence of a new rivalry between Renner and motocross bad boy Josh Hansen.
"We just despise seeing the other guy get the glory," Renner says. "No matter how much I try to focus on my own program, I cannot ignore the fact that my demeanor must annoy the piss out of the other guys. I try to use that to my advantage. I feel like the top podium spot is mine and someone has to have one hell of a lucky day to take it from me. It feels like someone steals it from you if they beat you at your own game."
Which is exactly what happened in Foz do Iguacu, Brazil. While the fans focused on the fiery off-the-field battle between Renner and Hansen, X Games rookie Bryce Hudson quietly snuck in and swiped first place.
"My little scuffle with Hansen didn't faze me one bit," Renner says. "My extra motivation the next contest in Barcelona came because Hudson snuck attacked the gold in Foz and humbled me really quick."
Renner won in Barcelona, but finished third behind Libor Podmol and Buyten in Munich. Hansen, who skipped the Munich event, returns to Step Up in Los Angeles, which means that the Friday night Step Up contest should be one of the biggest draws of the final X Games to be held in Los Angeles. It's hard to believe, but Step Up has all but replaced Freestyle Moto X, once the marquee draw, as the most popular motocross event at X.
"Back in the day, guys in freestyle really didn't like each other, and it made for great rivalries. Today, it's such a tight-knit group of guys that everyone's pretty cool with each other," Deegan says. "There needs to be more rivalries in freestyle. It's lacking. That was a great story, me versus Travis. I really didn't like him at the time. I was his opposite. And it was a great draw. There is always a good story behind a battle, behind two people wanting to beat each other. It's good drama. It's what drives competition."
Even when that competition ends in a hug.