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Spirit of Individuals Runs Deep

Tattoos, body piercings, dyed hair and baggy pants are high fashion among competitors, who have a strong desire to reject mainstream values.

August 16, 2003|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

It's a stereotype to say that every athlete at the X Games has tattoos and body piercings, but those things are a crucial part of the makeup of X Games athletes.

So are baggy clothes and dyed hair.

And anything else that defies the mainstream.

The exploits of skateboarder Tony Hawk and stunt bicycle rider Mat Hoffman have brought the X Games into the public eye, but this group of athletes steadfastly embraces freedom of expression over all other ideals and denounces "selling out" as if it were a hate crime.

The tattoos and piercings might cause fear, but the mantra of these athletes is hardly scary: "Stay true to your sport, stay true to yourself."

"It's all about individuality," said Hoffman, considered the king of bike stunt riding. "It's about creating and expressing. Everyone who gets into these sports is an individual. That comes out when they perform their event and in everyday life."

The way they look may draw strange glances and raised eyebrows from mainstream America, but these athletes aren't concerned with what mainstream America thinks. Even if ESPN hadn't put these sports on television, the participants would still be performing tricks at the local park.

"We chose to do these things because we wanted to do our own thing," Hoffman said. "If mainstream America doesn't like it, then turn the TV off. It doesn't bother me, we'll still be doing it if people are watching it or not."

So sacred is individuality in the X Games that participants rarely share with one another what tricks they will perform in an upcoming event. Jamie Bestwick, for example, had the best qualifying score for the Bike Stunt Vert on Friday at Staples Center, but called the run 60% of what he would do in the finals on Sunday.

Pressed to reveal what he had up his sleeve, Prestwick balked.

"Why give the game away?" he said. "I've got a few things planned, let's just see what happens."

The reason for the secrecy is simple. If someone knows what you're going to do, they might try it themselves.

"Everyone wants the upper hand," Prestwick said. "Everyone wants the edge."

Still, there is little jealously among the competitors if somebody performs a difficult or original trick. They welcome new tricks as a challenge and see them as advancing the sport. They often cheer loudest for good tricks.

"There are certain things that we've all thought about and wanted to do," Hawk said. "And if someone does it, everyone else is happy for them even if you don't get the claim of doing it first. It just means you'll have to be more creative and come up with something on your own."

Individuality, of course, starts with the clothes. Brand names are out, practical is in.

Dave Taratini, owner of Core Ride -- a shop at the X Games selling skateboards, apparel and accessories -- said the X Games generation will not buy from shopping malls or mega-stores. They look for clothing lines from those who know the sports.

"If it's in Pacific Sunwear, if it's in Marshalls, if it's in Mervyn's, that's not good for the brand in this market," Taratini said. "The kids don't want it. It's not cool anymore. Anti-mall is the mantra.

"Everyone uses it, therefore, it's uncool. It became a marketing ploy. It sold so everybody tagged the word extreme to everything."

There is a fine line between selling out to the mainstream and capitalizing on the opportunities that have come through the growing popularity of these sports. Hawk, for example, has several national television commercials, video games and DVDs.

He said keeping complete control over how skateboarding is portrayed has helped him stay true to the sport.

"A lot of what I do is to use their big marketing dollars to promote skateboarding," Hawk said.

No matter how many commercials, video games or clothing lines these athletes endorse, the quickest way for them to lose the respect of their peers is to lose their individuality. They view their sports as an artistic expression and many would rather land an original trick than win a gold medal.

Hoffman, for example, is credited with inventing more than 50 bike tricks. Last year at the X Games, he landed the first ever 900-degree spin with no hands. Later in the run, his bike malfunctioned, costing him a sure gold. He did not care.

"I did that trick and that was my main reason for competing," Hoffman said. "I wasn't too worried about winning."

That, Hawk said, is the true X Games spirit.

"To me it's more of an expression sport," Hawk said. "It's not about trying to be better than other people or being faster or being a better team. It's about being creative.

"The fact that there's a bigger audience for it now, there's more appreciation, it's allowed us to do it better because we can focus all of our energy on this rather than trying to find a way to make a living."

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