ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Wind-whipped ice pellets slammed into their faces and made their cheeks feel like frozen sandpaper. On another part of the mountain, alpine skiers had been sent back to their hotels, told that the conditions were too dangerous to race that day.
But for snowboarders, the contest was on.
Four years later, that day at the Pyeongchang Olympics remains a source of bitter memories for runners, including gold medalist Jamie Anderson.
It was, in their view, a loud and clear statement that, even 20 years after their sport was introduced to the Olympics to give the Games a younger, more vibrant feel, they were still treated like second-class citizens. .
“Even though I was lucky to land a race, I think it was a really, really terrible call,” Anderson said in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this winter, reflecting on a winning trip on the course that included watered-down tricks that I haven’t competed in winning slopestyle races in a decade or more. “And they really didn’t give the runners confidence.”
That lack of confidence was echoed in multiple interviews the AP conducted with runners and senior industry executives ahead of the Beijing Games, which begin next week. They expressed similar sentiments about the IOC, the Switzerland-based International Ski Federation (FIS) – which organizes snowboarding at the Olympics – and the US Ski and Snowboard Association, all of which have benefited from the mainstreaming of snowboarding. .
“When you really think about it, we’ve always been oil and water with the Olympics,” said Donna Burton Carpenter, whose late husband Jake invented modern snowboarding and brought it to resorts around the world. .
It all started during the sport’s Olympic debut in Nagano in 1998, when the word “snowboard” was misspelled on the venue’s dashboard – “Snow-Bording”. The riders were placed on a rain-soaked halfpipe that made good performances nearly impossible. The halfpipe contests took place following a positive marijuana test by giant slalom winner Ross Rebagliati that engulfed the sport in controversy while reinforcing stereotypes that fueled critics who thought snowboarding wasn’t quite a “real” sport.
Shaun White became the sport’s true star after winning gold in 2006, but in 2010 and 2014 poor halfpipes hampered the quality of some events, while others, including giant slalom races parallels of 2010, took place under torrential rains which made umbrellas. just as useful as snowsuits.
In 2018, snowboarders scored something of a victory when they changed an Olympic rule that called for local businesses to have a share of course construction contracts at Olympic venues. This allowed the best course and halfpipe shapers in the industry to participate in the construction, which most people believe led to better riding conditions.
Yet the accommodation and schedule changes that were made for skiers on the alpine course due to bad weather were not made for snowboarders. On the day four years ago that highlighted all the issues – the day of the women’s slopestyle competition – riders described communication as poor and the general feeling that if they didn’t go on the day in question, they could lose their chance to compete for a gold medal.
The result was a contest in which 25 Olympians each earned two points. Of the 50 total races, 41 ended with a rider on her back, or in a face plant, or off course unable to navigate the windy conditions.
“It was a bloodbath out there,” said Canadian snowboard star Mark McMorris.
“And start women’s slopestyle where the wind plays a bigger role. These people are on the ground in alpine skiing, they are not flying through the air on 80 foot jumps. I think snowboarding is sometimes overlooked in that sense.
Dean Gosper, an Australian FIS member who helped give action sports a better position both at the Olympics and within the Euro-centric organization, said FIS had done a lot of revisions and reworkings of the events of that day. Ultimately, the tight Olympic schedule and lack of “weather days” – backup days that have long been built into an alpine calendar – led to the event being staged in poor conditions.
“One of the prices freestyle snowboarding and freeskiing have had to pay to get into the (Olympic) mix is that there’s a very tight schedule for running” their events, Gosper said.
As the runners head to Beijing for the competitions which start on February 5, it seems strange for McMorris and many of his counterparts to be fighting essentially the same battles as their predecessors were fighting in the 90s.
Back then, as snowboarding mushroomed into the billion-dollar industry it is today, there was already a healthy competitive side to a sport that also valued the backcountry and freedom. expression that some say should not be subject to the whims of a jury.
This led some riders, notably Terje Haakonsen from Norway, who at the time was the best freestyle rider in the world, to say ‘no’ to the Olympics. Ever outspoken about his disdain for the IOC and the Olympics, Haakonsen strolled through Disneyland with his children on Feb. 11, 2002, the day America’s men swept the medals at the Salt Lake City Games, and a day often considered a turning point for the mainstream popularity of the sport.
“I won more prizes in the ’90s than people win in an FIS contest right now,” Haakonsen said in an AP interview last winter. “So were the Olympics good for the sport when the prize money is lower than it was in the 90s? I don’t think so.
Although there is no official database for prize money, Haakonsen won $100,000 in a halfpipe contest at the time. These days, a good first prize is considered $45,000.
A central issue that was never resolved was the IOC’s decision to make the FIS the governing body for snowboarding. At first, there was no synergy between skiing and snowboarding, which spent its early years trying to find its way into the mountains where most skiers didn’t want it.
“With skiers, I don’t know how much respect they have for snowboarders at the end of the day,” said Austrian snowboarder Anna Gasser, who won big air gold days after finishing 15th in the 2018 slopestyle contest. .
A generation later, many on the snowboarding side say they haven’t seen much change.
Kelly Clark, a three-time Olympic medalist and one of the sport’s icons, said she recently spoke to a panel of Alpine experts as part of her role with the fundraising arm of the US Ski and Snowboard Association. Part of his presentation focused on the details needed to build a good halfpipe, which have not been in play for at least half of the six Olympics at which snowboarding has been featured.
“A lot of people came to me afterwards and said they had no idea how important the pipe conditions were,” Clark said. “I was just amazed at the response.”
Gosper, the FIS executive, said the organization must continue to work to include snowboarding and action sports as full partners, and not just add-ons to Alpine.
“I think there’s a long way to go,” he said. “And I think there has certainly been a disciplinary bias within the FIS. It’s not out of malice. It’s just through the traditional story.
A clear sign of Alpine’s dominance in Europe: heading into the Olympics, the continent has 15 of the top 60 snowboarders on the global points lists for their respective disciplines; in comparison, Europeans occupy 90 of the top 100 places in the five Alpine disciplines.
But in America, snowboarders are a big part of the USSA’s success. With the help of current headliners White and Chloe Kim, snowboarders have won 31 Olympic medals since the sport joined the Games. Alpine skiers, including Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin, had a total of 21 victories during that span.
Given these numbers, Burton Carpenter said she was shocked to find that only about 5% of the 88 people on the USSA’s fundraising board, which she sits on, have a background in snowboarding – a confirmed figure. by AP panel examination.
“We’ve produced more medals and that’s ultimately how you measure success,” Burton Carpenter said. “So give us a fraction of the funding. It’s (expletive) up.
The funding formula is more complex than that. In general, it takes more money to turn an alpine skier into an Olympic medal contender, from education and training costs to increased travel costs to compete on circuits that are largely in Europe.
Although the USSA does not give a public breakdown of the money given to skiing versus snowboarding, two people with knowledge of the data told the AP that the split could be at least 75-25 in favor of Alpine. People didn’t want their names used because the data is not public.
USSA fundraising council manager Trisha Worthington did not respond to an email from the AP.
At the heart of the argument is that snowboarders have always felt an almost tribal loyalty to themselves, and the long-heard mantra in the community is that snowboarders, not skiers, should snowboard – not just at the grassroots , but at the highest level. , too much.
Burton Carpenter said she plans to push to take snowboarding out of the FIS domain, and potentially into a partnership with the International Roller Sports Federation, which runs skateboarding and may have more in common with its d cousins. ‘winter.
“Jake looks like he never imagined where the sport was going, but the runners did it, not the FIS or the IOC,” Burton Carpenter said of her late husband. “I try to find a way to make their voices heard. I don’t know if you can do that under the ski. They proved they couldn’t, and they don’t listen to us.
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