By Samuel McMahon
The Olympics are coming. Well, that is if South Korea still exists come February, but let’s assume it will. Despite this cycle marking twenty years of inclusion for snowboarding, our sport has had an uneasy relationship with The Games ever since it debuted in 1998.
It’s by far the most anticipated and watched contest on the calendar, but is it a fair representation of this thing we love called snowboarding? A game of football in the park looks by and large like the World Cup final, but how does halfpipe, slopestyle and now big air stack up against an average rider’s experience? But first, how does one even get there in the first place?
Olympic snowboarding got off to a bad start when the job of overseeing qualification was controversially handed to the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) over the existing International Snowboard Federation (ISF), which at the time already managed a world tour. Even with megastars like Terje Håkonsen boycotting the resultant qualifying tour, this led to reduced attendance at established contests every four-year cycle, competing tour schedules and, crucially, two world champions crowned by two governing bodies every winter. Unlike virtually every sport on earth, there was no real way of determining the best athlete from year to year.
You would have thought that twenty years later, snowboarding might have sorted itself out and either boycotted the Olympics until governance was brought back to a body of snowboarders, or accepted defeat for the good of the sport and embraced FIS control. Not so – these days things are worse than ever, with the number of competing events and world tours for freestyle snowboarding becoming confusing even for guys like me who are paid to know about this sh*t.
There’s the FIS World Tour, as well as their separate World Championships (this year held in Spain in springtime – not conditions conducive to a good winter sports competition). There’s also the World Snowboard Tour (WST) which took over from the ISF when it disbanded in 2002. The X-Games isn’t a tour (and has a suspiciously opaque qualification format) but is regarded by many as snowboarding’s blue ribbon event. Meanwhile Shaun White’s Air + Style big air events crown a World Champ after three stops, plus there’s the Dew Tour and US Grand Prix as well as one-off competitions like the Laax Open, Pleasure Jam and Burton US Open, often taking place at the same time on different sides of the globe!
This means that it’s rare to find the best snowboarders in the same place at the same time for a contest – imagine if Murray and Djokovic never played each other because Wimbledon and the French Open were scheduled over the same weekend – so world titles become meaningless. Almost by default every four years the Olympics become the definitive measure of who’s the best snowboarder at the time, despite decimating everything else for the 206 remaining weeks between games.
But given all of that, Olympic snowboarding doesn’t really match up with most snowboarder’s experiences – the majority of riders will likely never have seen a full size halfpipe given the expense it takes to maintain one, and whilst most resorts these days have terrain parks that resemble something like the PyeongChang slopestyle course or big air kicker, the tricks we’ll see going down on them are hard to grasp even for enthusiasts, let alone casual viewers. Triple cork 1440s (spinning four times and simultaneously going off-axis three times during a jump) and variations of the same are fairly standard these days amongst elite riders, and we’ll likely be witnessing several quad corks in South Korea.
The average rugby player will experience rucks and tackles similar to those he or she will see on telly, just the same as a road biker can attempt the same mountain passes as the Tour de France, or runners can run the same marathons at the same time as World Champions. Even ski racing is more relatable than today’s freestyle snowboarding – there’s a run in a ski resort, fastest person down wins. Simple. They’re all elite sports but similar versions of the same experience. Riding pistes and attempting the odd bit of powder (i.e. what snowboarding is to most participants) is almost completely removed from what we’ll see in February and is becoming more akin to dreaded ski aerials every year. Even dedicated snowboard magazines are more likely to fill their pages with photos of far-flung places and pow slashes than contest jumps.
So what, you might say. Does snowboarding even need a contest structure? Well no, not really, but competitions are what attracts big sponsors and – crucially – money into the sport. Plus it allows new stars to rise through the ranks without having to know the right people. It expands the sport and allows it to develop. Part of the reason snowboarding is suffering financially now is that there’s no clear overall tour to stick a logo on – you might be fine with that but as someone who loves snowboarding more than some family members, I ain’t.
But what if I told you there already was a competition that was relatable, has a clear qualification process and can legitimately crown winners each year? The Freeride World Tour (and the Freeride World Qualifier series) does just that, pitting riders against each other down off-piste faces in legendary destinations like Chamonix, Alaska and Verbier, places that speak to the roots and soul of snowboarding. In recent years it’s begun to shake off its kooky Euro image with stars like Sammy Luebke adding in freestyle elements and more stops being added to the calendar – next year will even see the first stop in the freeride mecca of Japan.
It’s brilliant fun to watch, even for non-snowboarders, (who doesn’t want to see people huck themselves off twenty metre cliffs) and is presented in the clearest fashion by the likes of Tim Warwood and Ed Leigh, for free! Hey, there’s even some skiing to be seen as well, apparently… Keep your kickers and quads, come February I’ll be tuning into the FWT.