Backlash after ESPN limits X Games Aspen athlete numbers due to COVID

Taylor Gold competes in the qualifying round of the men’s snowboard superpipe event during X Games Aspen on Jan. 22 at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Photo by Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Beyond the fact that next month’s X Games Aspen at Buttermilk Ski Area will be held without fans due to Pitkin County coronavirus regulations, the capacity limitations also trickle down to affect the competitions and athletes themselves.

More specifically, the capacity limits mean fewer of the world’s top winter sports athletes got the invite to compete.

The 2021 invite list includes 89 athletes compared with the 180-athlete invite list for the 2020 event. Fewer disciplines this winter, 14 compared to last season’s 21, contribute to the decrease in athletes, but the capacity restrictions also are seen year-over-year in individual competitions. Eight athletes are on the men’s snowboard superpipe invite list compared with 15 in 2020. It’s that men’s snowboard superpipe list — what many regard as X Games’ crown jewel event — that garnered the most debate this week.

Breckenridge resident and former U.S. snowboard team member Benji Farrow has been at the heart of that social media conversation. The former X Games Aspen superpipe competitor has shared his criticism of the X Games invite list on Instagram in support of his friends on the U.S. snowboard team, namely fellow Breckenridge resident and Steamboat Springs native Taylor Gold. Last winter, Gold won the men’s snowboard superpipe session event, a new addition to the 2020 games that won’t take place this season.

Farrow said he understands X Games is a “made for TV” event and that there’s a business element — and he feels American halfpipe legend Shaun White “without a doubt” should have an invite — but he still pushed X Games to reconsider inviting Gold and other top-rated American men’s halfpipe snowboarders.

X Games could turn out to be the only halfpipe competition of the season. The Grand Prix and Dew Tour have been canceled at Copper Mountain Resort. Add that to the Mammoth Mountain Grand Prix being on the ropes with California’s current regulations and uncertainty surrounding American travel to next month’s Laax Open in Switzerland. Farrow also wonders how the shakeout will affect the 2022 Olympic qualifying process.

“I understand the event had to downsize to meet with COVID regulations,” Farrow said. “But when you do that, I think it becomes more imperative you truly be very, very aware who you’re including in an event and not.

“The decision to not invite Taylor and Chase (Josey) baffles me, particularly. Because Taylor, if you go to the World Snowboard (Tour) points list, he’s the No. 1 ranked U.S. man in the world in halfpipe snowboarding and No. 6 overall in the world. The Americans who got invited aren’t even ranked in top 10. And you have Taylor at No. 6 in the world, (Josey) No. 8 and Chase Blackwell No. 9. So I just — I feel like it is a disservice to the integrity of the snowboard competition circuit to not have the No. 1-ranked rider in the host country at your event.”

Farrow’s Instagram post received more support than he expected, culminating in 400 shares as of Friday morning, he said. That includes Snowboarder Magazine echoing the message on its Instagram. Since, Farrow said he’s received responses on social media asking, “What about this or that athlete?”

“Standing up for Taylor, I hope it permeates a little bit and will work its way around,” Farrow said.

Farrow said Gold received an email from X Games stipulating he’s an alternate, meaning if another rider is unable to ride, he could be able to drop into the contest. That leaves Farrow wondering if the alternate slots for athletes like Gold mean they are able to be on-site at Buttermilk training and undertaking the same COVID-19 testing as invited riders. In that case, Farrow asks, why can’t X Games bump up the number of competitors to include alternates?

In response to questions about the capacity, invitation process and alternate situation, ESPN officials wrote in an email that its “No. 1 priority” is the safety of athletes and staff with a multitude of regulations and protocols in place, including “utilizing a finals-only format for competition.”

“We look forward to a time when we can welcome all athletes, staff and fans back to a more traditional X Games event in the near future,” the statement read.