Going to extreme

'Wow, a mosh pit!" Those unlikely words, uttered by an NBC commentator moments after snowboarder Kelly Clark took the gold medal in the women's halfpipe, heralded a new era for the Winter Olympics. The crowd of 17,000 crammed on the slopes outside Park City, Utah, erupted again a short while later, when the American men swept the same event, the first U.S. sweep at the Winter Games in nearly a half century.

Despite being potentially undermined by a bidding scandal and an unexpected figure-skating controversy, the 2002 Salt Lake City Games had an energy missing from its predecessors -- a vibe felt not only in the crowd, but across the country as well. Carried aloft by high-flying snowboarders and partly propelled by the return of death-defying skeleton sled races, NBC's Olympics ratings soared, up 31 percent over the 1998 Nagano Games in the key 18-to-34 age group and 18 percent overall. Gen-Xers ate it up: The Olympics were marketed and consumed as cool, and primetime was packed with events usually reserved for ESPN's X Games.

The show catapulted snowboarding, already the new sport of choice on the slopes, further into the mainstream. Medalists can now bank on millions of dollars in potential endorsements.

So why not summer? The same energy that made the Winter Games memorable remains largely untapped by its summer sibling. And if the International Olympic Committee chose to go that route, no place would benefit more than Central Florida.

This is, after all, the world's water-sports Mecca. About 90 percent of the world's best water-skiers and wakeboarders live or train here, honing their skills and competing amidst the tropical weather and landscape of numerous lakes.

Here is where you'll find Shaun Murray, the 2001 U.S. Masters wakeboarding champion; Darin Shapiro, the 2001 Wakeboard World champ; Wade Cox, the 2000 Pro Water Ski Tour Orlando champion and two-time U.S. Masters slalom champion; Andy Mapple, regarded as the Michael Jordan of slalom skiing with 10 tour championships; Freddy Krueger, one of skiing's best jumpers and a rising star on the wakeboarding circuit; Ben Favret, a consistent top-10 finisher on pro tour events; Rhoni Barton, labeled by WaterSki magazine as the "most dominant collegiate skier ever" and winner of the 1996 U.S Masters Overall Championship; and Parks Bonifay, a three-time Pro Wakeboard Tour season champion.

And that's just the short list.

Such a roster of potential competitors dwarfs the trio of Central Florida winter medalists: Garrett Hines (bobsled), Derek Parra (speedskating) and Chris Thorpe (luge). But it's not just about hometown talent. Orlando also plays host to a number of world-class competitions, including the upcoming College Wakeboard 2002 contest (March 15-17) and the World Wakeboarding Championships (Sept. 26-29) at the Orlando Watersports Complex. World Publications -- which publishes the magazines WaterSki, Wakeboarding and Windsurfing -- is based in Winter Park, and USA Water Ski, the sport's governing body, is based in Polk City. The World Wakeboarding Association (WWA) is based in Auburndale.

Olympic status would boost not only the athletes, with its potential for millions of dollars in endorsements. It also would elevate the industry. And water sports could satisfy the Summer Olympics' drive for excitement and a younger audience.

The International Olympic Committee has yet to extend that invitation. In fact, it shot down the water-skiers' bid to participate in the 2004 Athens Games. Wakeboarding isn't even on the table for discussion. Windsurfing already qualifies as an Olympic event, though the IOC only recognizes longboarding, a droll version of the sport rarely practiced by locals.

In light of snowboarding's success, will the IOC reconsider? Is that even what the athletes want?

As Favret puts it, "Now is a good time for us to revisit this."

Water-skiers don't want their sport labeled as "extreme." They say it trivializes what they do. "Anybody can do it," Krueger says in downplaying wakeboarding, a feature of the X Games. "Give me an afternoon, I can get anybody on a wakeboard. I turned pro in wakeboarding in three months."

Slalom skiing, on the other hand, takes years to perfect. It's also the closest of the water sports in the running for Olympic gold -- if not in Athens, than in Beijing in 2008. Water-skiers have been pursuing the Games, after all, for three decades.

Just two years ago, victory looked certain. Traditionally, the host city picks two new sports to introduce, and the Athens organizing committee asked only for water-skiing. (Other recent additions to Olympic competition include trampoline jumping and ballroom dancing.) But the IOC thought the Summer Games, with some 10,000 athletes already, was too crowded. Besides that, Athens was way behind on its construction.

Wait until 2008, the water-skiers were told. Then, maybe.

"It builds up their hopes," says WaterSki magazine Editor Todd Ristorcelli. "When it got shot down this time, it really hurt."

"We thought it was a done deal," echoes Scott Adkinson, a spokesman for USA Water Ski.

The push for Olympic gold started in 1972, when water-skiing was a demonstration sport. After that, USA Water Ski aligned with the International Water Ski Federation, the governing body recognized by the IOC, and water-skiing became part of the Pan-American Games. The last step up is the Summer Games.

Yet wakeboarders actually have the edge -- if they want to be sanctioned by the Olympics at all. Like snowboarding, wakeboarding is a once-dismissed phenomenon that has revolutionized the water-sports world, with youthful participants who perform many of the same gravity-defying stunts that made snowboarding such a hit.

The IOC won't recognize the sport, however, until it's part of an international federation. In most countries, wakeboarders have folded into the water-skiing federation, but not here. In fact, there are two world wakeboarding championships -- one put on by the WWA, and one by the International Water Ski Federation. Two years ago, merger talks between the two groups floundered because wakeboarders thought water-skiing rules were too rigid.

"All of this was contingent on the Olympics," explains Shannon Starling, executive director of the WWA. Because water-skiing wouldn't bend, Starling says, many of the best wakeboarders wouldn't join.

That's the latest drama in a history of bad blood between the groups. Ten years ago, wakeboarders approached USA Water Ski and were told they were a fad that wouldn't last. Only when the sport raked in big bucks did the water-skiers take notice, says Starling. In late 2000, the WWA rewrote its bylaws to expand worldwide, and since then, 17 countries have joined. Still, that's a far cry from what the IOC wants -- a federation of 40 countries over four continents.

Wakeboarders have other problems. For one thing, the sport is subjectively judged -- exactly what the IOC wants to avoid after the ice-skating flap. More important, many wakeboarders don't want any part of the Olympics. "They don't want the undercurrent of being mainstream," says Patrick Wampler, public relations director for the World Pro wakeboard and water-ski tours. "The underground movement is pretty strong."

Indeed it is. Like other extreme sports, it's more a lifestyle than a hobby, and one better left alone by the tamer Olympics, says Starling. "It would do more to hurt than to help. We have our Olympics -- the X Games. The difference is the mentality."

Not to say that they haven't milked that mentality for every last dollar. Corporations quickly realized the marketing potential for wakeboarding and other extreme sports and latched on, so much so that some BMX riders threatened to boycott last year's X Games in Detroit because they were too commercial. As one told the Detroit Free-Press, "It sucks when your life turns into a Mountain Dew commercial."

The X Games (originally dubbed the "Extreme Games" until the athletes pledged not to support anything that sounded so corny) and its NBC lookalike, the Gravity Games, feature a smorgasbord of action sports, from skateboarding and wakeboarding to BMX and motocross. They hit the spot with young viewers.

ESPN started a spin-off network, EXPN, to accommodate demand. The cable network sells out its X Games sponsorships, even as clothing lines aggressively pursue the supposedly "underground" youth market with clothes and sports gear.

"It's not a fad," says Robert Stone, president of Stone America Marketing, a New Jersey company that tracks extreme sports' popularity. "These past Olympics really enforced it more. As far as the youth of America are concerned, that's the future."

He suggests that extreme sports are the reason for lackluster NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball ratings. They're fresher and sexier, more new school than old, and stand in stark contrast to leagues filled with overpaid crybabies. They're the Sum-41 to baseball's Michael Bolton.

Yet while the nonconformist attitude strengthens the culture's foundation, it also limits its appeal. There's no movement, for instance, for BMX, motocross or skateboarding to hit the Olympics. "The community, they'd want to see it outside `the Olympics`," says T. Eric Monroe, spokesman for the United Skateboarding Association.

The Olympics aren't necessary, says sports-marketing analyst Nadine Gelberg. Extreme sports will fare just fine on their own, provided they can create clear-cut championships and well-defined heroes that "casual" fans can root for, she says.

Stone, however, sees the merger as inevitable. "It can't stay a cult forever," he says. "It's no longer the best-kept secret. Things progress and get more sophisticated. `And` the fact that the skeleton was so popular -- I don't have any doubt the IOC will look to expand ... with extreme sports."

Windsurfing emerged as an Olympic event because it falls under the IOC-recognized discipline of sailing. But the Olympics don't feature the most popular form of the sport, shortboards, which allow surfers to fly at 30 mph and perform big tricks off waves. Longboards, on the other hand, are slow sails that can race even in light winds.

They also make for boring races. "It makes the sport appear less radical and fun," says Eddy Patricelli, managing editor of Windsurfing magazine. The Olympic coverage, he suggests, may turn off younger viewers.

Windsurfers are testing their sport's limits with the latest trend, kite boarding, which pushes windsurfers high off waves at breakneck speeds. But that's too new for the Olympics, says Patricelli. It has yet to circle the globe.

Water-skiing and wakeboarding both are popular in Europe, Australia, South America and other parts of the world, demonstrating a global participation that is the IOC's main criterion for inclusion. And that surely would be a boon for athletes who currently scrape by. Unlike in golf, where even the 21st finisher of the 2001 PGA Championship took home more than $70,000, professional water-skiers and wakeboarders must finish in the top three spots consistently to break even. Although sponsorships can help defray costs, skiers in particular can run up $45,000 in boat, gas and equipment expenses each year.

Prize offerings are so slim, says Ristorcelli, that "someone could put up 15 grand and `attract` all the best slalom skiers in the world."

Indeed, endorsement opportunities are few and far between. Only 5 percent of those opportunities come from outside the water-sports industry, meaning that only the upper crust of competitors get a crack at them. The increased exposure the Olympics offers might change that.

"Anyone who wins a gold medal, the opportunities are certainly magnified," says Bob Evans, an agent who represents snowboarders and wakeboarders. Right now, the most successful water-sports athletes aren't necessarily the best ones -- they just market themselves better.

With wakeboarding enjoying surging popularity, water-skiers see the Olympics as a potential cure-all. "Some sports are in the Olympics, and that isn't the answer," Favret says. Instead, the Olympics would erase the stereotype of skiers as hot-dog eating, beer-drinking weekend warriors, he says. "These guys are serious athletes. `The image is` something water-skiing has struggled with for a long time."

Hyped-up TV coverage also could attract a new wave of athletes, especially if the coverage employs inventive camera angles and energized commentators like snowboarding. "It's not boring. If it was, you wouldn't be doing it," says Peter Chase, a pro water-skier who lives in Texas. "That's what they have to get across."

But even more than money, the Olympics would offer water-skiers and wakeboarders the respect they've largely been denied in the larger sports world. Few locals even know the burgeoning scene exists.

And that's what the Olympic quest is about: respect and recognition. Chances are, however, the IOC won't reverse course before Athens, making water-skiers wait at least six more years to get it.