Saturday, February 18, 2006


Sports Saturday: Olympic Snowboarding

Sean White sat in the studio with Bob Costas, euphoric and childish -- that is, unguarded -- long, shaggy and famously red hair spilling around the still-forming face of a teen. He looked less like an Olympic champion than the neighbor’s kid you caught in your shed smoking pot. The kind of kid I wouldn’t turn in because he’s so polite and cheerful, and I didn’t turn on Sean White and his snowboard for the same reason. It took a hot-dog flourish on the second-to-last jump of the women’s snowboard cross final that cost Lindsey Jacobellis the gold medal to turn me firmly against the sport: snowboarding doesn’t belong in the Olympic games. Ever since its early pioneers carved their first boards, snowboarding has been the low-rent high-energy out-of-town cousin on the ski slopes. With its broad base and sideways facing, riding a snowboard feels more natural than riding skis, which must explain why it’s easier to learn to snowboard. (A beginner boarder can expect to venture to the top of the mountain by the end of her first day; a beginning adult skier might not venture off the bunny slope in her first year of attempts.) Snowboard equipment is less expensive, and snowboards’ natural habitat -- where they operate best -- is the untracked fields of powder in the semi-illegal out-of-bounds areas. The snowboard, then, is the tool of the populist rebel: it is fast, easy, and fun. Without tradition to guide them, boarders are still designing their equipment, techniques, and performances. They’re inventing the sport as they ride. And the snowboard is the thumb to the nose to the ski establishment, the racers, the instructors and ski patrol, and the maintenance crews that run the mountains. But snowboarding lacks the discipline and training required of downhill ski racers, who must literally dedicate their lives to their sport, attending special ski academies from junior high school on, spending summers south of the equator, training on South American slopes just to remain competitive. The snowboards themselves are harder to control, make wider turns and stop slower. Snowboarders -- lacking training and time on the slopes -- disregard safety etiquette. Skiers feel a natural antipathy for the packs of noisy, out-of-control teen riders who cut them off or board across their skis in lift lines. Still snowboarding is a growing sport precisely because it is accessible. It’s grown into a multi-million dollar industry. Like other fringe fads -- rock-n-roll, grunge, skateboarding -- the establishment has consumed our outcasts and made them establishment figures. And including the sport in the Olympics was a crass marketing move. The networks covering the games bank on drawing otherwise disinterested young viewers. The corporate ventures that manufacture snowboarding equipment hope to lure new riders by presenting the sport to a mainstream audience. And the riders themselves are cashing in on new corporate sponsors: Amex, Visa, MasterCard. But why not? What makes, say, the luge more valid than snowboarding? In short, it’s we expect from the Olympics, and from cultural rebels. The games are supposed to represent sport’s highest ideals and parade our best athletes. That’s why we were so upset by Byrant Gumbel’s remarks about the quality of Olympic athletes: his words were heretical, but we also recognized their truth. It’s what we saw when Sean White, with less physical ability and grace than your average ice dancer won a gold medal. It’s what we saw when Lindsey Jacobellis preferred to hot dog than to win. We demand more from our Olympiads. Imagine if snowboarding remains in the Olympics. Does anyone doubt that it will be dominated by Chinese boarders bred for the sport, attending state-build half-pipe training schools for their whole lives? Riders who perform without joy, without any flourish or hot dogging? That’s the future of Olympic snowboarding. The rebellious nature of snowboarding doesn't belong in the Olympic Games: that’s not what should happen to snowboarding.
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