Jacob Zinn :: journalist + photographer

The Overexposure of Under-18 Extreme Athletes

Posted in Extreme Sports, Opinion, Skateboarding by Jacob Zinn on October 1, 2011
I

n 2003, Ryan Sheckler became the youngest gold medalist in X Games history when he debuted at the age of 13 and won the Skateboard Park competition. That same year, a 16 year-old Shaun White debuted and became the first athlete to medal in both the Summer and Winter X Games. Four years prior, Travis Pastrana won the first Moto X Freestyle event in 1999 at the age of 16 and scored the highest ever run of 99.00 points.

These three athletes have a lot in common: they’re young, they’re athletic and they’re household names.

I just got lucky.

Ryan Sheckler, 13
2003 SK8 Park Gold Medalist

Extreme sports have always had a prominent connection with youth. There are still a few 30-something veterans dragging their creaky bones to the X Games, but the progression of the subculture has opened opportunities for teenage prodigies.

But those opportunities can turn skillful fan favourites into overrated gold-medal hogs in the eyes of long-time viewers. Deliberately or not, they become the face of the sport until all we see is the face, not the sport.

W

hen Travis Pastrana won the first Moto X Freestyle competition in 1999, nobody thought he would win it six more times. He has dominated freestyle and has only lost gold medal contention either due to injury or by not competing at all.

The truth is, these guys are really good at what they do. Sheckler won his first X Games gold medal the same year he turned pro, and to this day, White is one of the few–if not only–athletes to crossover between skateboarding and snowboarding.

The issue is, these young athletes get overhyped to the point that they become the frontrunner not because of their talent, but because of their name recognition.

Sheckler had a reality show on MTV called Life of Ryan. Rather than follow him around and watch him skate, the show played up the drama in his life–his parents’ divorce, reckless friends, girl troubles–ignoring the thing that made him famous: skateboarding. Suddenly, the fresh-faced teenager who out-skated everyone else in his debut was airing out his personal life on television, showing us a side of himself that really didn’t need to be shown.

This type of mind-numbing programming might be adored by the rest of Generation Y, but those of us who knew of Sheckler before he was on MTV would rather watch some of his unreal tricks on YouTube.

But, worse than an MTV reality show is when worldwide spectacles like the X Games and the Dew Tour run pre-recorded vignettes, almost endorsing these guys as their best athletes. Chaz Ortiz is a talented, 17 year-old medallist, but he hardly gets the same type of hype.

At the 2010 Winter Olympics, White’s face was all over commercials for the men’s halfpipe competition and the commentators repeated his name to emphasize his snowboarding ability. Having won gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, it came as no surprise (given the sanctimonious voiceover) that he would better his previous record with a score of 48.4 out of 50 in his final run, even though he performed all of his standard tricks.

Now, his standard tricks are not the standard of everyone else; they’re more like the highly unrealistic SSX snowboarding video game franchise. If the commentators would just call the play-by-play, perhaps more would be legitimately impressed by his tricks and not secretly wish for him to bail so someone else could take home gold.

I

t’s one thing to earn the medals and trophies. It’s another to be given useless accolades that only overexpose your name to the world. By choice or not, White has seeped into other mediums and gotten his name out to audiences beyond the scope of extreme sports:

  • He was voted “Chairman of the Board” (get it?) in 2007 and 2010 on Spike TV’s Guys’ Choice Awards.
  • He’s been on the cover of Rolling Stone–twice.
  • He was named “Most Metal Athlete” by Revolver magazine’s Golden Gods Awards. (Does he even like heavy metal?)

And year after year, he’s the all-American glory story, the Miracle on Urethane Wheels. Even with his shiny, full trophy cases, he’s made out to be USA’s underdog, but his name is said over and over so many times that, essentially, everyone else is an underdog.

He’s a two-time Winter Olympic gold medalist. He’s won three gold Dew Tour medals and six gold Winter Dew Tour medals. He’s won six of the last seven Winter X Games superpipe competitions. (And that other one, he placed second.)

Clearly, these guys are the future of their sports, but don’t tell us that. Let them show us that they are determined to progress extreme sports because, underneath all the publicity, sponsorships and medals, they truly love what they do.


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