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Ready for Action

Local venues are expecting big crowds for the X Games, more proof of extreme sports' appeal

August 04, 2004|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Like many of her teen-age contemporaries in sports such as golf and tennis, Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins has an air of confidence, a requisite when you travel the world to compete, often against people nearly twice your age.

But Adams Hawkins, 14, is from a mold quite different than that of the typical top amateur athlete.

Her training is on her own terms. Her competitors are often close friends who openly root for each other. Her sport involves no bats, balls, rackets or clubs.

Adams Hawkins is an "action sports" athlete, a skateboarder who will compete in ESPN's X Games Thursday through Sunday at Staples Center and other Southland venues.

The X Games, originally a made-for-TV event, are 10 years old, nearly as old as a few of its competitors. And it has survived, in fact thrived, despite significant skepticism.

Adams Hawkins, even in her short career, is used to the criticism offered by many sports purists: Skateboarding is not a real sport and, therefore, she is not a real athlete. Same goes for the other events, surfing, wakeboarding, BMX riding, inline skating and Moto X, or freestyle motorcycle riding -- circus acts of no legitimacy conjured up by networks such as ESPN.

Nowadays, though, organizers of action sports events don't get mad. Instead, they point out a few facts: Programming is up. Prize money is up. Participation is up.

Not only have action sports gained a strong foothold, but they've flourished at a time when interest in some traditional sports is sagging. They're becoming better organized and top athletes -- even girls or young women, though they're in the minority -- are enjoying lucrative careers.

They remain largely a young person's game, but that has only helped them become a powerful force in society.

"Action sports have increasingly made it onto the mainstream sports scene because they offer a vehicle for corporations to reach young men, teens and boys, and do so at a time when traditional stick-and-ball sports are seen as less compelling by these groups," said David M. Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports marketing consultant.

"Until about a decade ago, [the thinking was] that those kids riding their skateboards off curbs and over railings were simply crazy. They were, but now their athletic feats are not only recognized, but truly hailed as incredible athletic prowess by a generation of sports fans that appears to care more about snowboarding and motocross than snow-skiing and cycling."

And if anyone cares to argue otherwise, Adams Hawkins says, let them try to execute a kickflip-to-Indy, a difficult maneuver she may showcase this week.

*

A decade ago, the X Games provided a forum for some of the crazy things people were doing back then, including barefoot water-skiing, bungee-jumping, street luge and speed-climbing. Today, the games have been streamlined to include only sports that are able to survive on their own.

Only instead of being found on just one network, they are found on many.

Fox Sports has Fuel, its action sports network, which profiles action sports activities and athletes.

NBC Sports has the Gravity Games, which this summer will be broadcast by the Outdoor Life Network.

Next spring, NBC and Clear Channel will debut the Dew Action Sports Tour, featuring skateboarding, BMX and freestyle motocross, with five major events and a format similar to that utilized by the Professional Golfers' Assn. tour.

"The biggest change in the past 10 years is that rebellious sports have now become more mainstream and acceptable," said C.J. Olivares, vice president of programming and marketing for Fuel. "You now have moms driving their kids to skate parks and making sure they get enough time on them. You have kids aspiring to be professional skaters, pro surfers and skateboarders. These are now viewed as legitimate directions to take."

This would have seemed laughable in the 1980s, about the time Tony Hawk, now 36, was beginning to almost single-handedly lift skateboarding out of the back alleys. An exceptional talent with uncanny business savvy, Hawk turned pro at 14 and earned $70,000, through winnings and endorsement deals, while a senior in high school. Kids wanted to be like him. They still do.

That was also when Mat "the Condor" Hoffman was gaining fame as a fearless BMX freestyle rider, performing tricks on ramps and rails that seemed unimaginable to others.

"The bikes back then were not designed for the abuse we were putting them through," said Hoffman, now 32, with a wife and two children. "A few trips to the hospital made me start my own company."

Hawk and Hoffman, who still perform in exhibitions, both have become successful businessmen and influential forces within their respective industries. Their sports are becoming better organized with universal ranking systems, and Hawk, who is vice president of Skateboarding USA, said that discussions were underway to have skateboarding as a demonstration sport in the Olympics, perhaps as soon as 2008.

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