ASPEN, Colo. — When ESPN created the X Games in 1995, critics laughed and parents scoffed. They said anything with boards, wild flips and strange terminology couldn't be a sport and the competitors weren't really athletes.
Oh, how the perception has changed.
As ESPN prepares for its seventh Winter X Games next weekend in Aspen, Colo., extreme action sports have become popular and the athletes have garnered their own corner of celebrity.
"When we first started the X Games, there was a lot of resistance," said Josh Krulewitz, ESPN's director of communications. "Now the sports have become a part of the mainstream and are accepted by young and old."
The X Games began in 1995 as the Extreme Games, with events such as bungee jumping, skateboarding and skysurfing. Organizers changed the name to the X Games the following year, then decided to take the action to the snow.
The first Winter X Games were held in 1997 at Big Bear Lake, Calif., featuring events such as ice climbing, snow mountain bike racing and even something called super-modified shovel racing.
It's been all big air since.
For the inaugural Winter X Games, there were an average of 214,000 viewers per telecast. That number grew to 317,000 in 2001.
The average viewers dropped to 311,000 last year because the events were tape-delayed to avoid conflicts with the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics, but it didn't stop ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC from setting several single-day records for Winter X viewership.
This year's event, which will include 250 athletes competing in snowboarding -- the only Winter X original left -- motorcycle, skiing and snowmobile events, is expected to draw 40,000 spectators to the mountains surrounding Aspen.
The sports have become so popular that snowboarding was added to the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and snowboarders gave the United States its first medals sweep in any Winter Olympics event in 46 years at the Salt Lake City Games.
"It's different and it's fun for people to see someone fly 90 feet through the air," said Moto X rider Tommy Clowers, who will participate in his third Winter X. "They're very visual sports and I think that's what draws people to them."
And to the mountains.
According to the National Sporting Goods Association, snowboarding is the fastest growing of all the sports it tracks.
Since 1991, when the association began surveying snowboard purchases, sales have increased from 1.6 million boards to 5.3 million in 2001. Snowboard sales also jumped 22.9 percent from 2000 to 2001, the largest increase of all sports.
Of the snowboards sold in 2001, 1.8 million -- 35 percent -- went to boys ages 7-17. Another survey, by the Statistical Research, Inc. in 2001, showed that 61 percent of U.S. children between ages 8-17 said they watch extreme sports.
"The success of American athletes last year at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City gave the sport a lot of spotlight," said Larry Weindruch, the sporting goods association's director of communications. "It has drawn to people to the sport."
It's also created a new world of celebrity for athletes once only known in local circles.
Clowers started riding motorcycles when he was 8 and turned professional 10 years later, competing in front of the sport's most hardcore fans.
Now he travels the world putting on shows, with stops in Italy, Portugal, Spain, Australia, France and the Czech Republic just in the past year.
Clowers rarely goes through a day when someone doesn't recognize him, with people coming up to him at stores, airports and restaurants.
And like many of the top-name athletes in extreme sports, Clowers also has an action figure in his likeness and a part in a PlayStation video game.
"They've really been building it (extreme sports) up the last few years," Clowers said. "Before, I never used to know much about it, but it just seems to be getting bigger and bigger every year. They just keep building it up and the kids are just getting more pumped about it."