Flips only: Winter X Games on, but fans not part of the show

The 2021 version of the Winter X Games promises lots of flipping and spinning, not so much singing and dancing.

ESPN announced Tuesday that the first major action-sports contest since the COVID-19 pandemic started forcing major cancellations will take place during its usual slot in Aspen, Colorado, from Jan. 29-31, but will be closed off to fans.

Among those expected to compete are Chloe Kim, Mark McMorris and David Wise, all of whom have missed several events since cancellations scrubbed the late-winter calendar earlier in 2020. They now find themselves facing an uncertain international schedule with only 14 months to get ready for the Beijing Olympics.

“Obviously it’s been tough on everybody,” said Tim Reed, the ESPN executive who oversees the X Games. “No doubt the athletes are excited to get back out there.”

The first Winter X Games took place in 1997 in California, and the games have settled in Aspen since 2002. They have long been regarded as the most prestigious set of contests on the action-sports calendar, and their focus has shifted over time.

The event has mushroomed over the decades into a festival-like gathering that draws more than 110,000 fans to Aspen over the weekend. It features live bands, house and street parties.

To have any chance of putting on a show this winter, however, ESPN had to pass through a number of health-related regulatory hurdles to ensure county officials they would be running a safe, socially distanced event.

An event that has traditionally drawn more than 200 athletes will probably include about 90. A support staff that often numbers more than 1,000 will be cut in half. There are no plans to have spectators. Fans are urged to watch the action on ESPN, which owns and produces the event, and online.

“The safety is always the most critical aspect of this,” Reed said. “We really believe our events can be produced in a way that mitigates risks to all.”

As part of the Disney family, the X Games has learned a lot from experts, both in the health and TV production areas, from several different sports, including those who helped make the NBA’s bubble in Florida work.

In many ways, hosting a three-day outdoor event that doesn’t include any contact between the competitors is a less daunting task than, say, 10 weeks of NBA games.

Still, organizers are designing an intensive testing protocol and establishing safeguards for the 500-or-so competitors, coaches and staff who will be inside the snowboard bubble in Aspen.

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