For many of the dudes and dudettes that flock to the ski resorts every winter, one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City will be the snowboarding parallel slaloms and half-pipe freestyle competitions.
However, for the majority of people outside the snowboarding world, the eyes will be on what happens after the events in the drug-testing labs rather than on the snow.
After first appearing in the mid-1960s, snowboarding made its Olympic debut at Nagano in 1998, and was almost immediately embroiled in controversy.
Having won the men’s slalom, Canadian Ross Rebagliati was initially stripped of his medal after traces of marijuana showed up in a drug test. Rebagliati claimed he was innocent and had passively inhaled the dope at a party and, unbelievably, the International Olympic Committee backtracked and allowed the Canadian to keep his medal.
The cynics, however, had further fuel for their ammunition and said, “Told you so.”
Snowboarding grew out of a pastime that was as much a way of life as it was a competitive sport. With its laid-back image, it had more to do with the street than the committee room, and many felt it should never have attained Olympic status. One can but only imagine what certain committee members thought when they were told about a snowboarder’s “backside handplant” or “stiffy air.”
Fiona McNeilly, operations director for the British Ski and Snowboard Federation, said the sport’s acceptance had a divisive impact. “It was very free-spirited. I wouldn’t like to say that it completely split the sport in two, but there are two different camps,” McNeilly said.
“A lot of top snowboarders are not interested in competing, but there is another group that decided to follow the Olympic route.”
The feud that existed between the International Snowboard Federation, which controls the sport outside of the Olympics, and the International Ski Federation (FIS), which controls the sport within the confines of the Games, only increased the problems, and a number of professionals have said they will not be competing in Salt Lake City.
This split in the ranks seems to have worked its way down to all levels of the sport and serious questions need to be asked as to which direction the sport should take at the highest level.
Sandy Rose, serving in Japan with the U.S. military, has been involved in the sport as a competitor and recreational boarder since the late 1980s and is one of those enthusiasts firmly against snowboarding being in the Olympics.
“I’m not going to watch the snowboarding in the Olympics. I don’t care about it,” he said, and it would seem he is not alone.
“A survey of recreational snowboarders in Canada and the U.S. showed that the majority would rather go freeriding than watch the Olympics,” Rose added.
The absence of stars such as Terje Haakonsen, regarded by many as one of the greatest snowboarders ever, has as much to do with this as the general apathy toward snowboarding, and in particular the half-pipe competition, as an Olympic event.
“There were big problems in Nagano over the judging of the half-pipe,” Rose explains. “The FIS controls the sport in the Olympics and they appointed judges who had no or very little experience. There was no set standard as to what was good, and as the judges didn’t understand the tricks there were a lot of complaints from the competitors and boos from the crowd.”
Rose hopes things will improve this time around but, like many, doesn’t see much future for the sport if the half-pipe competition remains an Olympic sport at the expense of boardcross — which is best described as being a BMX-style race in which six boarders race one another down a course containing numerous jumps, bends, hollows, etc.
However, the boarders on the Swatch boardcross tour seem happy where they are and have made no push toward getting their sport recognized as an Olympic event.
The majority of nonboarders probably think that the sport is just a way for skateboarders, surfers and wannabe trendy young things to have fun in the snow, but Rose opens up a whole new world with his knowledge and insight into the sport.
There are, he explains, two basic categories of snowboarding: freestyle and free-riding. The former uses a symmetrical board, which is designed for jumping and tricks, while the latter uses a more directional board which can be used in all terrains.
With 60 to 70 percent of snowboarders in Japan in the sport simply because it is trendy, free-riding boards are the most commonly seen boards on the slopes of Japan.
What is far more rare to see are the long boards and split boards that Rose also owns.
The long board was developed for the rider who prefers a lot of surface contact (and therefore more flotation) and results in far higher speeds.
“My board was one of only 12 sold throughout the world last year,” Rose said. “It’s very stable but the only real place to use it in Japan is up in Hokkaido where the slopes aren’t as busy. The board is similar to a long surfboard and there are plans to hold a leg of the Longboard Classic in Hokkaido next year.”
Split boards were developed for people who enjoy telemarking or hiking into the backcountry to make untracked runs in endless powder without carrying excessive gear such as snowshoes.
Rose explains that “the board is basically a free-ride board that has been cut down the middle with mounting hardware to join the two halves for descending. Synthetic climbing skins are attached to the base halves for climbing, so you can only move in a forward direction and don’t slip back, and are removed when the board is assembled for riding.
“The real big benefit is that it can cut the time it takes to get to the top of a slope in half as it is far faster to glide than plod along in snowshoes,” Rose explained.
Perhaps this could be an alternative Olympic sport.
Competitors would have to race one another both up and down a mountain. It would eliminate the artistic interpretation that exists in both the half-pipe and Big Air competitions on the pro circuit and it would end up with one clear winner.
How the trendy young things would take to that remains to be seen.
Noise (sorry, “music”), baggy clothes and a “rebellious” attitude seem to be one of the sport’s drawing points though as Rose stresses, “there are plenty or us into the sport for the fun we can have racing down a slope or boarding across virgin powder snow surrounded by nothing but nature.”
Until then, the traditionalists among the skiers will complain that snowboarders damage the slopes by slide slipping down the piste and snowplowing the snow to leave a hard-icy surface while the boarders who haven’t skied will complain that skiers stop in all the wrong places.
It seems the sport has a long way to go, both on the professional and recreational front, before everyone is happy.
Oh, and by the way, for those who were wondering. A “backside handplant” is a half-pipe stunt in which the rider places his or her hands on both sides of the rim, and a “stiffy air” is a half-pipe aerial move in which the rider straightens both legs and grips the snowboard’s edge.
After all this is a family sport.
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