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What the Olympics Means to Snowboarding
With thanks to Matt Barr at The ACM Writing Group. This article was written in November 2005 and first appeared in part in issue 64 of Whitelines snowboard magazine, January 2006.
Eight years down the line, and snowboarding and the Winter Olympics still make uneasy bedfellows. Of course, much has changed since Terje Haakonsen boycotted the 1998 Games in Nagano, citing the corrupt practises of the IOC as his primary reason. Back then the announcement that snowboarding would be an Olympic sport was met with a bout of genuine soul-searching. Snowboarder published an anguished, well-argued rebuttal called ‘Can We Give The Olympics Back?’ and it was generally the hot topic among riders the world over. At the time, much of this was to do with the political machinations that had seen the ISF (the body that had to all intents and purposes run competitive snowboarding until that point) elbowed out of the running by the IOC’s decision to allow the FIS (International Ski Federation), an organisation that had until a few years previously been trying to get snowboarders banned from the mountain, to oversee snowboarding’s Olympic qualification system. It meant pro riders had to compete on the FIS tour and effectively sealed the fate of the International Snowboarding Federation. But really, we can now see that Olympic acceptance was snowboarding’s very own Rubicon moment, when the sport was faced with the stark choice of any counter culture activity on the point of crossing over to become a fully-fledged mainstream lifestyle. To sell out or not to sell out? That was basically the question. Some, led by Terje, took their stand. Others took the opposite, equally understandable view: it’s, like, the Olympics man! I could win a gold medal and make my parents and country proud! Woo-hoo! Somewhere in between, the die was cast.
Looking back, with snowboarding now absolutely massive, they seem like the arguments of a more innocent time. We’ve pointed it out many times over the last two winters, but snowboarding actually crossed the river a long time ago. Snowboarding is now routinely used to sell everything from McCain Oven Chips to packets of mints, and we don’t even question it anymore. In the light of this, any stance taken on snowboarding ‘selling out’ seems simply quaint. So it stands to reason that the Olympics Games are a fully accepted part of our snowboarding world, right?
Well, not quite. Like it or not, snowboarding still stands slightly apart from the rest of the Olympic family. Each four years, the question rears its head once again. So why is it still important? In many of the other Olympic sports, summer and winter, it’s fair to say that competing in the Games, let alone winning a medal, stands as the absolute culmination of an athlete’s career. Not so in snowboarding. For every Dan Wakeham, who’ve dedicated the last three years of their lives to achieving their goal, there’s a Tyler Chorlton who has decided to ignore the whole thing, and is still doing very nicely and enjoying the respect of their peers – more so, you could argue, for taking a more credible stance. In this way, snowboarding really is closer to skateboarding than, say, curling. And if these are the real roots of our sport, the argument goes, the essence of what it means to be a snowboarder, surely we should try to protect it?
It’s for these reasons that we’ve decided to get some representative views from across the entire snowboarding spectrum, to try and answer the question: what do the Olympics means to snowboarding today? How does David Ny, head shaper of the pipe, feel about the responsibility he has to make sure the event goes well? How do the athletes who don’t care about any of the politics and see it as the chance of a lifetime feel about it? How do those behind the TTR feel about it? What about the BBC, in charge of snowboarding’s biggest terrestrial audience every four years and pretty much ignoring it in the meantime? How do they plan to represent the sport we love? Who makes the decisions? After all, for every Ed Leigh, who will be co-commentating this year, there’s a Steve Cram, opining on the commentator’s couch at the Salt Lake games that snowboarding somehow isn’t ‘a real sport’? Have they moved on from those days? Perhaps this is really the point, and why we still care. Snowboarding might have changed, but the world’s view of snowboarding really hasn’t. The papers still run ‘Guide to snow lingo’ sidebars each autumn, approximately 20 years after the joke wore off. As we’ve seen, people like Steve Cram, astonishingly given the size and reach of our industry, still feel as though we don’t count as a ‘real sport’. Quite justifiably, you might be sat there thinking, ‘Who cares?’ Whatever we think, it is events such as the Olympics, when for one brief moment snowboarding takes it’s place next to skiing, athletics and yes, even curling, that decree how the rest of the world is going to view snowboarding for the next four years. That’s why it’s important.
What’s the Score?
‘Snow like the sea, moguls like waves, snowboards like surfboards.
Taken from the official Torino 2006 website
I’ve been reading that first sentence for about half an hour now, and I still don’t really understand it. Who on earth wrote it? Had they been reading our ‘Isn’t It All Surfing?’ article from earlier in the season? Confused, I had a look at the official IOC website, and the list of Olympic sports, to see what they had to say about snowboarding. This was even more confusing: I couldn’t find a mention of snowboarding anywhere. Then I clicked on ‘skiing’ and there it was, right at the bottom, under slalom, downhill and all the rest: ‘snowboard’.
Here, I discovered six snowboarding disciplines will be held at the forthcoming Olympic Games to be held in Torino, Italy: men’s and women’s half pipe, men and women’s parallel giant slalom and men’s and women’s Boardercross. They’ll be held in the resort of Bardonecchia, with the parallel GS and ‘cross being held on ‘slope 23’ at Melezet and the pipe event being held on ‘slope 24’, also at Melezet. The pipe comes first, with the men’s and women’s events held on Sunday the 13th and Monday the 14th of February. The ‘cross (sorry, I can’t bring myself to write ‘Snowboard Cross’ or ‘Boardercross’) events come next, on Thursday 16th and Friday 17th, with the GS events bringing up the rear on Wednesday the 22nd and Thursday the 23rd. So despite the fact that the Torino website seems to have been written by somebody fluent in gibberish and the IOC website appears not to even recognise snowboarding as a pursuit separate from skiing, our sport has a pretty massive presence in the Olympics this year.
The Athlete - Dan Wakeham
Since he arrived on the scene with his ‘Wakeham Whirl’ a few years back, Dan Wakeham has taken snowboarding by the scruff of the neck. The kid who used to be nicknamed ‘Hansen’ thanks to his mop of blonde hair has come a long way, and has spent the last two seasons on the tour fighting for an Olympic place. In a scene in which getting a decent video part in a UK flick is the sum of most people’s ambitions, Wakeham’s approach makes him a stand out. We caught up with him to find out what he thinks about the whole Olympic extravaganza, and why he chose the competition route ahead of that chosen by most of his peers.
How’s it going Dan?
Yeah I’m doing well thanks. I’m just at home, then we’re heading off to Saas Fee, Whistler and Breckenridge for a World Cup.
How long have you been on the competition trail now?
This has been my second full season competing. Before that, I did a season in Mammoth and I entered a few competitions, like the US Tour and the Triple Crown. I just did them cos I they were on really, and I did pretty well in the Triple Crown so I thought I’d carry it on.
So how did lead you to get involved with the British team?
Well when you do the US tour it’s an FIS event, so you have to go to SIGB to sign you up for it. So I went through them, and they said if I wanted to do more comps I should join the team. I mean, I like doing comps. They’re good for progression.
It must be difficult to fund a season competing though…
It’s really fúcking difficult. After that season in Mammoth I was really in bad debt. My dad actually wanted me to quit it! He found me an apprenticeship as a plasterer down here at home! But cos I was enjoying my life, I decided not to do that. So I kinda made myself a CV, found Nike as a sponsor and went from there. But I’m always struggling for money.
So how does it work?
Well we get a UK team credit card for flights, accommodation and travel. It all goes on there and then you get a bill at the end of it. Last year’s bill was 7 grand! Yeah, you’ve got to pay it back! So that pretty much whipped my Nike budget. So to do it I really need corporate sponsorship. I’m being managed now and they’re looking after that.
Who are you being managed by?
Kaos Brands In Action. They deal with my Nike contract anyway, and they have other stuff on the books as well.
So how do you feel about the Olympics? Excited?
Kind of. I mean at first it all seemed too far-fetched. But then I started getting good results and it became realistic.
Was it a decision you made yourself, or were the coaching crew involved as well?
It was a bit of both to be honest. I can see the standard, and with Craig our coach there, he watches everything and knows what the score is. He can judge us by our standard generally. But it’s kind of all of us who think we should do it.
So there’s a good bit of team spirit there?
Yeah there is, it’s a good laugh.
So what’s the deal with the Europa Cup then, explain about that…
It’s like a bit of a back door route. Each country’s team gets a couple of quota spots from the World Cup, so there are only two competing in each World Cup event. If you place in the top 20 or something overall you get your own spot. So the Europa Cup is another way of doing it, cos it’s a different level. I won the old series, so I got my own World Cup spot on my own terms. It means the rest of the team has both the other places.
At the time of writing it’s November – when will you find out if you’ve actually qualified?
There are four more World Cup events, so you can qualify until they’ve done. And there’s a Grand Prix, so it’s looking pretty good. When I’m riding well I think I can do well. Like at the last World Cup in Saas Fee, in training I was doing really well. Coulda got in the finals, but I fúcked up both runs doing the same trick. It was under vert, and I caught the coping each time I tried to go bigger. But I’m feeling confident that I’ll get there.
But what does it mean to you?
It’s just another World Cup – but then again it’s the Olympics! It’s kinda weird. I don’t really know how I feel about it. It’s strange. The big thing about it is the media hype, and that makes it full on really. When I talk to other people who maybe aren’t involved in snowboarding and they’re like ‘What?!’, that’s when I kinda remember what a big deal it is.
Have you thought about winning the thing?
(Laughs) Well to be honest I don’t think I’ll come away with a medal. There are just so many good Americans and Finns out there. You’re going to be behind them, cos they’ve got so much more experience than I have. Antti Autti is just a machine. So is Crepel. I’m glad there are as many good Euros as Yanks…which is another weird one actually, cos there are so many Yanks they’ve only done a World Cup each. As soon as one of them gets in, they don’t do it anymore. So you don’t get to see the standard of a lot of them.
So what about afterwards? Do you think you’ll carry on competing?
Afterwards? I don’t really know. If I can finish in the top 15 in the world, I’ll get 50 grand’s worth of funding, so if you look at it that way it’s almost stupid to stop. Filming would be fun. But looking at it as a career, I could actually make money out of it rather than be in debt the whole time. So it’s kinda likely that I will carry on. I mean after the Olympics I think a lot of people will drop out and probably quit.
It’s from the British Olympic Association, high level funding. Lesley and ZoÎ get it, that’s how come they can afford it!
And are you looking forward to the opening ceremony?
Well that’s another weird one to be honest – they (the BOC) don’t want us to go! Maybe they’ll think we’ll be a shambles or something. It’s a bit weird to be honest. They said it wouldn’t be good for our confidence, and that it’s too far away cos the ceremony is in Turin and our events are in Bardonecchia. Basically, we’re not invited!
So who do you tip for the gold?
Antti Autti – he’s that good. I’ve been hanging out with him quite a lot and he’s so consistent, amazing. So solid – we were doing tricks and he just busted a 1080 so casually. Not so sure about the women, but that girl Hannah Teter is pretty amazing. She does 9s with big grabs. She’s fúcking good – she could beat most of the men! Makes me fúcking sick watching her!
The Event Organiser - Drew Stevenson
AS CEO of the Ticket To Ride tour, Drew Stevenson is at forefront of efforts to foster’ the fun and progressive’ elements of modern competitive snowboarding. Many would consider the TTR to be the natural successor to the now defunct ISF – so where do the Olympics fit into this scheme of things? We pinned Drew down for five minutes to find out …
How relevant is the Olympics to snowboarding in 2006?
Hmmm. How relevant is it to any of the sports? I would say it totally depends on the sports in question. Athletics, gymnastics, cross-country, skiing, swimming – it is really important. It’s their one showpiece every four years. Football, basketball, tennis, boxing, and ice hockey – all seem to have their own well oiled and media savvy professional competitions or tour. In this context the Olympics is certainly funny but not so significant. So with snowboarding – where do we sit? I think in terms of presenting the sport to a broad mainstream brand it is highly important. In terms of the core perception, I don’t think many people automatically assumed (no offence to either riders, as they are both sick riders and really nice guys) that Gian Simmen or Ross Powers were considered the best snowboarders or even best half pipe riders in the world directly following their result. They both did have sick runs, both deserved their Olympic golds, both made a shitload of money following the result, and both are probably well sick of hearing event announcers scream ‘…and now dropping in, Olympic gold medallist…’
What about the IOC’s involvement with snowboarding?
In terms of the IOC's involvement in snowboarding, it doesn't really have any apart from accepting snowboarding as an Olympic 'discipline' and inferring the status as 'governing body' to the Federation International du Ski, or FIS.
So in an Olympic context you’d put it somewhere next to football or tennis, as more of a sideshow every few years, but not really a true reflection of the sports? Does it worry you that those presenting the sport to a broad mainstream audience might get it badly wrong? Back in the day it seems that’s what people mainly objected to. Do you think we’ve all moved on since then?
I don't think you could call the Olympics a 'sideshow' in truth. A gnarly circus would probably be a better metaphor! But to answer your question, I don't think we could (or should) compare ourselves to football or tennis. To address the 'back in the day' element, having lived in the thick of that period, my main impressions that all of the riders, the industry and core snowboard media felt snowboarding had been hijacked by the Dark Evil Empire of Skiing - embodied in the sinister organization called FIS! And in truth, I think this feeling was totally justified at the time. The FIS, naturally as it has a long term relationship with the IOC through their skiing, ski jumping, Biathalon, etc, had done some fairly brutal behind the scenes maneuvering and I feel that the ISF, riders etc. had a legitimate drum to beat in terms of what and particularly how everything went down. But ... while I personally backed the ISF at the time, the very public conflict with the FIS was totally negative for snowboarding as a whole. It made the sport almost untouchable to potential sponsors, but what was even worse is it resulted in the riders being the pawns in the middle a fairly ugly dispute. In hindsight, while I know the ISF waged this war for ethically correct reasons, sometimes you need to pick your battles to win the war. The TTR respects the fact that riders need to make choices on their own careers. We don't term them FIS or TTR riders. As far as we are concerned they can do some, none, few or both. Their choice. So, have we moved on since then? Yeah, I think so. FIS does their thing and we concentrate on ours. Having said that, the Park City Olympic Halfpipe event was an amazing display of snowboarding, and I hope that Italy can live up to that. Any well-viewed display like that is positive for snowboarding.
So it isn't galling that you as an organisation spend so much time and effort putting across what you presumably think is the 'correct' (for want of a better term) side of competitive snowboarding, only to be usurped by the Olympic event which you have no control over? Do they ever ask for advice, consultation? Do you ever see a time when the TTR might have a hands-on role as the qualifying system, and is this even something we'd want as snowboarders?
No. I think the Olympics should qualify into us! Ha! OK, maybe not. But really, we look at it like this: the Olympics is another event, like any other event such as the X-Games, Gravity Games etc. that is not associated to the TTR Tour, and does not earn a rider points towards the TTR World Snowboard Tour ranking list and is there for a rider to decide if they want to attempt to participate in or not. Some will make it. Some will not. And you will probably find a high proportion of the same riders riding at a TTR event the week after, and the three years following. As to the other point, personally, I don't have time to feel usurped or not. Our focus is to create the most progressive events, run a ranking system taking into account the needs of snowboarders, create a ranking list and tour champion accepted and respected by core snowboarders and to present snowboarding as understandably and professionally as we can. Our energy is really focused on fostering the progression and fun in snowboarding. Any time we waste or spend getting hot under the collar about FIS or IOC or whatever... is wasted energy. Would we want to control the Olympics? I don't know. If the question ever came up we would ask our Riders Board what they though. Would we give any expert advice? Again, I don't know. It would depend on the question and situation as it stood at the time. The TTR is an alternative system for professional freestyle snowboarding. The Olympics is the Olympics. Chose one or do both. We would hope the riders ride our events either way. One other comment. I don't think there is a 'correct' way of snowboarding. That’s what makes it so rad.
The TV Producer – Jonny Bramley
Nothing sums up the way that the Olympics can influence up the perception of a sport better than the way the BBC handled snowboarding four years ago in Salt Lake City.
I can remember it like it was yesterday. There was UK snowboarding pro Melanie Leando, an athlete who had spent the best part of four years trying to qualify for the Olympics, being told by Steve Cram that, somehow, snowboarding was not ‘a real sport’ when compared to some of the other events. It’s worth remembering that this was the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, not the 1984 Sarajevo Games. Presumably Steve also has difficulty programming his video and has trouble working out what this new-fangled ‘inter-web’ is all about as well. Let this be a lesson to us all readers: never wear your ignorance, no matter what the topic, on your sleeve – particularly on national TV. It’s never a pretty sight.
All of which leads to a wider point - is it too much to ask to expect the BBC, who don’t normally touch snowboarding and suddenly find themselves in charge of the sport’s biggest terrestrial presence once every four years, to use the opportunity to get across a positive view of snowboarding? Will their handling of the sport match the changes that have taken place over the last five years? Or should we expect more blood-curdlingly ignorant attempt to grapple with the subject from Steve? These are the questions I put to Jonny Bramley, Executive Producer in charge of the BBC’s Olympic coverage in Italy.
What’s your role going to be during the Olympics?
I’m Executive Producer for the BBC’s entire Winter Olympic coverage. And the guy who’s going to tell you that we’re going to handle the snowboarding side of things a bit better this year!
What’s your background?
I’ve been at the BBC since 1988, for two years as a Computer Graphics Programmer, then in BBC Sport as Assistant Producer, Producer, Senior Producer and now Executive Producer. I’ve been the Senior Producer on Grandstand for the last 3 years, and also produce/direct Golf, Wimbledon, and Major Events. I worked on Ski Sunday from 1991-2001 and was Series Producer 1999-2001. I've worked on the 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics, but 2006 is the first Major Event that I'll be Exec Producer on. Other than that, I love skiing and snowboarding (definitely better at the former!) and go on a couple of snow sports holidays per year if I get the time. I'm going to Alpe d'Huez over New Year, will spend 6 weeks in Sestriere for the Games and then I'm off to St Anton the moment I get back - before heading straight off to Melbourne for the Commonwealth Games!
Presumably this must be a general challenge for the BBC. I mean, many of the sports at the Olympics you’d usually never feature, and you’re faced with the challenge of presenting those sports in a credible and relatively involved manner. How much work goes into this?
A lot to be honest. We’re going to be showing a lot of the mountain sports live. For example, all of the snowboarding, all the Alpine skiing, bobsleigh, skeleton and luge are all going to be live. Then the sports we feel the UK audience wouldn’t be as interested in will have lesser coverage – sports such as cross-country and biathlon. They’ll be featured fully on interactive, and we’ll show brief highlights on the network. So there is a commitment on sports that are exciting, which is really what the Olympics are about.
So how are you going to handle the snowboarding?
My wish is to get credible, which is really why we’ve got Ed Leigh commentating on the snowboarding. He knows a lot and is a respected commentator and broadcaster, so he seemed like the ideal guy to bring along. We want to give the impression that the BBC is moving forward and embracing change. We want to come across as progressive. The events are pretty much going out live on BBC 2, a lot of which is because Roly Keating, who is controller of BBC2, is keen to have it under his umbrella. He’s pretty progressive and forward thinking himself, and is keen to bring a youthful feel to things. I’m not saying we want to move away from the things that BBC sport is traditionally good at – accuracy, good journalism – but in this case we’d like to give the impression that it’s a bit less ‘BBC’ and, dare I say it, maybe a bit more like the Extreme Channel in approach. We want make the most of the Winter Olympics, so it’s about making the most of the events themselves.
How about the other presenters? How well briefed will they be this time around?
I saw the email you sent with the comments about that last time around. I think much of the problem last time around was to do with the fact that the presenters were in London, and as such were necessarily a little detached from the action. This time around, we’re going to be in Sestriere, and all presenters will be on site. It’ll have a better feel, and they’ll be more qualified to speak about the sports and get it right. Our two presenters in this case are going to be Claire Balding and Hazel Irvine, and they are well briefed.
Why did you choose Ed Leigh as your commentator?
Ed? I’d seen Ed around, and I think he’s a good performer. He’s done some Ski Sunday for us before as well. Another reason was that it was based on the recommendation of Matt and Graham, our other commentators. Ed’s got a great attitude, so he’s going to be fine.
He’s going to be presenting live commentary of the events as they go out?
Yes. He’s totally live in the commentary box at these events.
Will you be focussing on any athletes in particular on the snowboarding side?
Zoe Gillings is certainly one of them. On her day she’s obviously got a chance of taking gold, so of course we’ll be keeping an eye on her. In the pipe event, Kate Foster and Dom Harington look like they could do well. Ben Kilner as well. Obviously we won’t find out if they qualify until December though.