Shred. Big air. Gnarly alley-oop backside rodeo nosegrab. Yeah, the Winter X Games have a language all to themselves. Increasingly, the highly acclaimed extreme winter sports competition and festival — which takes place this weekend in Aspen, Colo. — has developed quite an international accent.
When ESPN debuted its first Winter X Games in 1997, the participants and their loyal fan bases were predominantly comprised of American snow-kids, Generation X’ers raised on Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the ski slopes of the western mountain ranges. Gradually, the snowboarders and motocrossers reached worldwide, resulting in ESPN’s bringing the competition to sites including Tignes, France in 2013. This year’s Winter X in Aspen draws athletes from around the globe: Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Japan, Finland, France, Italy, Germany, Bulgaria, Sweden and those long-time skiing powerhouses Great Britain and New Zealand.
And the fans are coming from all points too. A stroll down Aspen’s East Cooper Avenue, through the art-and-cafe heart of this impossibly quaint skiing village, yields an international cacophony: Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, English, French and others all intermingle as the snow flurries gently fall.
That means that everyone involved in the Winter X Games must go with the worldwide flow, lest a well-intentioned action morph into an embarrassing international customer service snafu.
“You have to be careful with how you act, what you say and how you say it,” says Winter X Games fan Hanna Talaie, from Germany. “In one country it can mean one thing. In another country, it can mean something completely different.”
One group here in Aspen that certainly may attest to that is comprised of our ten Lynn University students whom we have brought to this glorious spot, 8,000 feet above the sea level of our Boca Raton, Fla. campus. The students are here to help to run the Winter X Games as part of our class on sports customer service, the ninth consecutive year that we have run the upper-level course in partnership with ESPN. Like our university itself, our Winter X group is highly international. Our Aspen group hails from Russia, Turkey, Canada, Greece and England. And, for good measure, we have two Jersey boys, a Texan and a real, live native Floridian.
“I’ll give you one — don’t stick your tongue out at someone, even if you mean to be funny,” says Lynn University junior Alexey Mikhailov, from Russia. “Where I come from, that is a really, really huge insult.”
ESPN and Aspen Skiing Company — the impressive local sports tourism corporation which oversees much of the Winter X Games personnel infrastructure — have worked hard to keep this all in check. Volunteers are reminded of cultural differences, such as never to point with one finger (to do so in Australasia often is akin to flipping someone the bird). Volunteers with ASC greet international visitors at the Aspen Airport appropriately: A Japanese teen tour group was met with bows, a group of college kids from Germany were greeted with hearty handshakes.
“We have to think globally,” ESPN event operations coordinating director Paul DiPietro told our Lynn University group at the base of Buttermilk Mountain. “Everything we do has to be mindful of being international, from our broadcasting to serving our guests.”
It’s not quite the profound lesson on international diplomacy and cross-cultural understanding so desperately needed in our ever-shrinking world. But it’s a gnarly start, dude.
Prof. Ted Curtis (@TedCurtisStuff) and Dr. Chad Barr are associate professors and co-chairs of the sports management program at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.