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X Games and Gay Ski Week converge on Aspen

Eben Harrell, Aspen Correspondent
Special to the DailyTwo enthusiastic downhill costume party particpants who identified themselves as "Greg (left) and John" of West Hollywood, Calif. took second place as a group costume called "Gucci Geshia" during Gay Ski Week in January, 2001.
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Homosexuality and sports have always had an uneasy relationship, from the bullying of schoolyard dodge ball to multimillion-dollar coliseums. In a recent documentary, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” examined the interplay between homosexuals and sports. The title of the show, “The Last Closet,” revealed much. To illustrate its point, ESPN focused on the prevalence of suicide attempts by athletes who are “outed.” Ed Gallagher, an offensive lineman for the University of Pittsburgh, and Justin Fashanu, a professional English soccer player, are the two most famous examples.

So, if homosexuality and sports are indeed an oil-and-water mix, the concoction is getting a real stir this week as Gay and Lesbian Ski Week and ESPN’s X Games converge in Aspen. The X Games, a winter competition of high-octane action sports that last year attracted close to 50,000 spectators and participants, runs from today until Tuesday. Gay Ski Week, a weeklong celebration of homosexual culture that will bring some 4,000 gay skiers to town, begins Sunday and runs until Feb. 1.

Culturally permissive Aspen is no stranger to the mix of sports and homosexuality. For many years the town has been a home and refuge of sorts for the great lesbian tennis star Martina Navratilova. And Gay Ski Week, a sports-oriented event that attracts thousands of gay athletes, has been held in Aspen since 1977.

“Party atmosphere’

Paul Rossi, executive director of Aspen’s Gay and Lesbian Community Fund, points out that the two events have overlapped before. Still, to alleviate concerns, Gay Ski Week has “back-loaded” its events to encourage greater participation in its final weekend, Jan. 31-Feb. 1, after the X Games are gone.

“That our two events are running at the same time can really help each other,” Rossi says. “For us, it can bolster our early-week participation, which is traditionally slow. It will allow our guests to see some cool, non-mainstream events.”

Melissa Goullotti, the X Games spokeswoman for ESPN, also sees the overlap as mutually beneficial. Although X Games is foremost a serious action sports competition, she said, the event is also famous for the atmosphere and nightlife it creates.

“When you have a lot of stuff going on, like X Games and Gay Ski Week, it only helps enhance the party atmosphere,” she said. “This place is going to be rocking.”

Wild week

Many of Gay Ski Week’s most ostentatious events – including the “Drag Downhill contest,” in which male contestants are judged not on speed but female-fashion sense – will run after X Games is finished. Still, the entire week carries a feeling of indiscretion and misrule, of outrageous outfits and bawdy behavior.

Many insiders denounce the “carnival” image of Gay Ski Week, however, claiming the week is less about show than about sports. In fact, Jack Johnson, a member of the Aspen Gay and Lesbian Community Fund board of directors, believes Ski Week is closer to an action sports week than many realize.

“This isn’t your father’s gay ski week,” Johnson said. “The guys and girls who come up for this week ski hard and board hard. They are excited about X Games.”

Rossi said the similarities between the two crowds are far-reaching. This year will mark the largest winter X Games competition in its eight-year history. ESPN broadcasts will reach 110 million homes internationally. Simultaneously, Gay Ski Week organizers look forward to their most successful event, with a 100 percent increase in sponsor dollars from last year.

Rossi, a straight, former Sony executive, embodies Gay Ski Week’s cross into the mainstream. He says the time is ripe for the term “counterculture” to lose its prefix.

“X Gamers have fought hard for their identity, and X Games is now a mainstream event,” Rossi said. “The gay community has had the same experience.”

As for X Gamers, the feeling of a long overdue acceptance also dominates. Ten years ago, when the first summer X Games were held, snowboarders couldn’t even board Aspen Mountain. The meteoric rise of action sports over such a short period has meant that successful X Game athletes honed their craft at a time when mainstream culture believed it warranted alienation, not admiration.

Travis McLain, a former X Games gold medalist who will provide live commentary this year, has seen firsthand the gradual respect earned by X Gamers. He said, as a result, if ever there was a sports crowd that could accept homosexuals in close proximity, it would be X Gamers.

“Everyone’s pretty mellow,” McLain said. “There might be a few redneck snowmobilers that can’t deal with the gay dudes, but on the whole it won’t be a problem.”


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