Since debuting in Rhode Island in 1995, the X Games have become a global phenomenon, drawing millions of TV viewers for “extreme sports” competitions such as skateboarding, motocross and BMX. From Tony Hawk landing the first 900 (a 2.5 revolution aerial spin on a skateboard), to Travis Pastrana nailing the first double back flip on a motorcycle, to Dave Mirra pulling off the first BMX double back flip, the coolest tricks often happen first at the X Games.
X Games 16 take place July 29 to August 1 in Los Angeles, California, featuring more death-defying stunts and record-breaking tricks—and plastics once again will play a critical role in the sports gear and safety equipment.
No matter the sport in Los Angeles, all competitors will have one piece of equipment in common—a helmet.
Most helmets have a hard, crack-resistant outer shell, usually made from a tough plastic such as ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene). Helmet interiors contain plastic foam pads constructed from various plastics: EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), polyurethane, polystyrene or polypropylene. The plastic shell and foam are designed to mitigate the impact by spreading the blunt force of a crash over a greater area of the head, as well as to reduce friction in a slide.
Skateboarding helmets (“half shell”) tend to be heavier and cover more of the head than traditional bicycle helmets, providing protection from the top of the forehead to the base of the neck, as well as for the ears. BMX and motocross riders—who spend much of their time flying through the air—usually wear full-face helmets that wrap around the chin, sometimes made of carbon-reinforced plastic composites that provide significant strength while keeping the helmets relatively lightweight.
The sport most synonymous with the X Games—skateboarding—likely originated in Southern California in the mid-20th century as a pastime for surfers when the waves were weak. Skateboarding began moving from counter-culture to mainstream with the introduction of polyurethane (plastic) wheels in the early 1970s. The resilient, lightweight polyurethane wheels provide a smooth ride on any surface, and polyurethane remains the predominate material used today in skateboard wheels.
Even some of the boards (called decks) are made from plastic. The banana board, a thin, flexible polypropylene deck, became popular in the mid 1970s as skateboards were becoming much more maneuverable, enabling skateboard pioneers to develop new tricks. The plastic composite carbon fiber-reinforced deck was introduced in 2004— manufacturers claim it can stand up better than traditional maple plywood decks to the daily abuse of skateboarding.
In motocross, a sport where much time is spent airborne or careening around corners at high speeds on a motorcycle, reliable protection is paramount.
Most professional motocross competitors wear what equates to body armor. While the protection is heavy-duty, the plastic materials are light and flexible. A serious layer of pads and braces made of Kevlar® (a plastic fiber) or plastic composites helps protect riders in the event of a crash and helps to support vulnerable joints such as knees and ankles. And underneath all that plastic gear? More plastic: moisture-wicking nylon or polyester (both plastics) jerseys with mesh panels to keep the athletes cooler and dryer. Even some of the motocross bikes incorporate plastic composite frames and wheel forks, enabling them to maintain strength and durability while weighing less than traditional metal frames.