A Life in Freestyle
From Hotdogs to Olympic medals, John Johnston has shaped freestyle skiing
A newcomer to the ski scene is hotdog skiing. It is neither alpine skiing nor ski jumping, but classed in a category all its own.
Nor is hotdogging designed for the average recreational skier — you have to be both a competent and a strong skier, with good athletic prowess and a flair for gymnastics. (You also have to be slightly crazy!)
– from the 1973 Canadian Ski Association (Western Division) handbook
In 1974 John Johnston took first place and a few hundred dollars for executing a perfect back layout off Whistler Mountain’s Ridge Run. One of the best aerialists in the world in the mid-70s, the victory was the highlight of Johnston’s career as a freestyle competitor.
In 1994 Jean-Luc Brassard won a gold medal in the moguls competition at the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. The medal thrust Brassard into the international spotlight; he is now mobbed in Japan, the largest ski market in the world. Brassard can also be seen in several countries endorsing products from skis to shampoo, and his annual income is well into six figures.
The changes in freestyle skiing between the time of Johnston’s leap off Ridge Run and Brassard’s gold medal run at Lillehammer are like the Wright brothers going from Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral. Johnston has not only seen all the changes, he’s been instrumental in making them happen.
"The gratifying thing is that the sport is working well now; it’s organized all over the world," says the chairman of the Blackcomb Freestyle World Cup Society.
"The ideas for the sport we envisioned in the ’70s have now been implemented."
When freestyle skiing — or hotdogging, as it was first called — burst onto the North American ski scene in the early 1970s it was like rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s — rebellious, anarchistic. The structured, formal world of ski racing had grown even stodgier following the 1968 retirements of the first two World Cup champions — and two of the sport’s strongest personalities — France’s Jean Claude Killy and Canada’s Nancy Greene. Freestyle was the antithesis of ski racing, embodying an early ’70s attitude; it was a form of experimentation, barely in control, and the rules were made up as competitors found new ways to express themselves on skis.
Spurred on by the tricks and jumps shown in ski films of the late ’60s and early ’70s, freestyle became an American interpretation of a European sport. Even the French Avalement technique, and the high-backed boots it spawned, were co-opted and used to perform Wongbangers. Very quickly all the hot equipment was made in America: Scott boots, Spademan bindings, K2 Bermuda Shorts, The Ski and Olin’s Mark IV model. Everything from boots to jackets to toques seemed to be either orange or yellow.
One of the first freestyle innovators — the original hot dog skier — was Vancouver’s Wayne Wong, who learned to ski on Mount Seymour. Wong hitchhiked from Vancouver to Waterville Valley, New Hampshire to compete in one of the first major freestyle events, co-sponsored by Skiing Magazine. Doug Pfeiffer, an editor at Skiing, was instrumental in promoting freestyle and convincing some of the magazine’s advertisers to sponsor a professional freestyle tour.
"He had a chance to be Mr. Freestyle," says Johnston of Pfeiffer, "but he didn’t want to do it."
Chevrolet was one of the big-name sponsors eager to be involved in ski competitions that were spectacular, easy to understand, took place in America and featured American stars. Bob Salerno, John Clendenin, Scott Brooksbank, Susie Shaffee, Airborne Eddie Ferguson, Floyd Wilkie, George Askevold and Wong were some of the first big names, who competed in front of crowds of 10,000 or more.
But as popular as professional freestyle was, it was a sport without foundation. In the ’70s there were only individual athletes and a few sport organizers, committed to making money.
"When it first started competitors weren’t doing too advanced manoeuvres," Johnston recalls. "But very quickly a lot of money became involved. People took greater risks, and there were injuries."
A number of aerialists sustained serious neck and back injuries. Some ended up paralyzed.
"I was the next jumper to go at Vail in 1974 when Scotty Magrino attempted a double back and ended up paralyzed for life," Johnston says quietly. "I was going to do the same jump."
That accident had a lot to do with Johnston getting involved in re-organizing freestyle. Law suits were flying faster than the freestylers; ski areas refused to hold competitions because they couldn’t get liability insurance, and a second rival professional freestyle circuit started up.
At the same time freestyle was imploding ski racing was making a comeback. Franz Klammer’s breathtaking run at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck and four upstart Canadians, dubbed the Crazy Canucks, dragged the spotlight from freestyle to downhill racing. Some vestige of a pro freestyle tour remained, but Johnston decided the only hope for the future was to go amateur.
"We had to grow freestyle into the national ski federations system," he says. "We conformed, they accepted."
But it wasn’t as simple as that. Johnston approached the International Ski Federation (FIS) about taking freestyle under its umbrella in 1975. It was a tough sell to most of the conservative, grey-haired members of the FIS, but he felt it was the only way if international standards for safety — particularly in aerials — were ever to be established.
"It was a great game of chess," he says of the four-year struggle to gain acceptance from the FIS. But he gives credit to president Marc Hodler for having the vision to see freestyle should come under the jurisdiction of the International Ski Federation. In the spring of 1979 Johnston became the first chairman of the FIS Freestyle Committee. Now 45, he’s still the only chairman the committee has ever had.
At the same time he was playing chess with the FIS Johnston was working with the Canadian Ski Association to develop regional amateur competitions and establish ranking systems similar to those used in ski racing, so that freestyle competitors could work their way up to provincial and national competitions.
In 1978 the first Canadian national freestyle team was formed, and on Jan. 26, 1979 the first Can-Am Amateur Freestyle event was held at Edelweiss Valley, near Ottawa. The American team, still struggling with liability issues, was forbidden to execute inverted or 720-degree jumps. The overall champion of that meet was a fellow named Greg Stump.
Johnston’s FIS Freestyle Committee hammered together a freestyle World Cup circuit by the fall of 1980 and launched it in 1981. Still smarting from the collapse of the pro tours in the mid-70s, World Cup freestyle struggled to attract corporate sponsorship. But in 1983 the FIS approved a freestyle world championship competition, the next requirement for Olympic acceptance. The first world championships were held in Tignes, France in 1986.
"It took a decade to rebuild the sport," Johnston recalls. "Poor economics, insurance risks, a stagnant ski industry, liability, were all hurdles. The IOC, the FIS, the National Ski Areas Association, insurance companies, the media — they all had to be convinced in the ’80s."
The IOC — the International Olympic Committee — was one of the last groups to be convinced. But before they could even be reached the organizing committee for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary had to be persuaded of freestyle’s worthiness. After extensive lobbying by Johnston and Pat Judge, father of Canadian team head coach Peter Judge, the organizers decided to include freestyle as a demonstration sport at Calgary. The aerials competition drew crowds of 80,000, which prompted one IOC member to comment that attracting so many spectators wasn’t proper and perhaps freestyle was too successful.
In May of 1988 the FIS Congress was held in Istanbul, Turkey. Johnston was to present a report on freestyle at the Olympics on a Sunday morning. The Friday before that presentation Johnston got a phone call from Jean Claude Killy. The French ski racing legend was chairman of the committee organizing the Olympics in Albertville, France in 1992 — and he had a problem.
All the alpine ski racing events were scheduled for Killy’s hometown of Val d’Isere, and a few other resorts in the Savoie region, but Tignes — right next door to Val d’Isere — had nothing. Being owned by a large French bank, Tignes had the power to demand some Olympic events; in particular it wanted the women’s alpine events.
Killy saw the solution to his dilemma in freestyle. He called Johnston in Istanbul to see if he needed any help in his presentation to the FIS Congress.
"I said, ‘well sure Jean Claude, I can always use some help’," Johnston recalls.
To which Killy replied: "Would you mind if I come to your presentation?"
The Frenchman and an entourage of advisors flew from France to Istanbul the next day.
"So I walk into the FIS Congress — which is like walking in to face the Inquisition — and Killy is walking in with me," Johnston says. "It made an impression."
Johnston’s written report on the success of freestyle at Calgary was submitted earlier, so the Congress asked if either of them had any comments on freestyle within the Olympics.
"Killy stood up and waxed eloquently about the state of freestyle and how necessary it was to the Albertville Olympics for about five minutes," Johnston says. "Then Marc Hodler says ‘do you have anything to add?’ and I just said ‘no’."
Later that day Hodler ran into Johnston in the hotel lobby and said the FIS Congress would be recommending to the IOC that one freestyle discipline be included as an official sport at the 1992 Olympics.
"Which do you want?" Hodler asked.
"I said, without blinking, moguls," Johnston recalls.
The former aerialist had learned how to play chess during his negotiations with Hodler and the FIS a decade earlier. He reasoned that aerials, like downhill in alpine, was the event which attracted the most interest. If moguls got official Olympic status in 1992 it would be easier to get aerials included at the next Olympics, which were only two years later in Lillehammer, Norway.
It turned out even better than Johnston could have imagined. Not only were the moguls held at Tignes in 1992, but Frenchman Edgar Grospiron won the gold medal. At Lillehammer aerials were an official Olympic event.
Freestyle is now in its 16th year of holding FIS-sanctioned events without any serious, permanent injury at any level of competition.
"If there’s one single accomplishment I’m proud of it’s being included with an entire group that’s been involved in designing and implementing the safety standards for the sport," the Vancouver stockbroker says.
"You look at a guy like Lloyd Langlois who has done 10,000-plus jumps in his career, safely.
"We’re also one of the most advanced acrobatic sports in the world. Competitors are now doing seven manoeuvres in the air (quad-twisting triple back flips) in competitions, and Langlois has landed a quint-twisting triple in training."
It’s a far cry from Johnston’s days as a competitor. He grew up in the Lower Mainland, skiing Grouse and Whistler and got into freestyle at age 19. With no gymnastics background or training, Johnston and friends like Darryl Bowie just went out, built jumps and flipped.
But as far as the sport has come, "only now is the industry beginning to realize and utilize freestyle," says Johnston.
"Japan is the biggest ski market in the world. The Japanese are very interested in technique. You open a Japanese ski magazine and it’s all about technique, compared to a North American ski magazine which is all about travel.
"In Japan there are five magazines devoted exclusively to mogul skiing. A guy like Brassard is just huge in Japan."
In Europe, too, freestyle gets more coverage than it does in its birthplace of North America. Is it because the sport has lost its rebel roots?
"Did we take the ‘free’ out of freestyle?" Johnston asks. "To some degree, but we had to make it safe.
"My underlying philosophy is that the life of an athlete is worth more than points (in a competition).
"After 15 years of World Cup freestyle the public now cheers when a jumper lands on his feet, and goes silent if he crashes. When I was competing everyone came out to see who would crash. The whole thing has turned around, but turned around for the good."
Some of the anti-establishment spirit originally inherent in freestyle was re-discovered by snowboarders a few years ago, but Johnston now sees snowboarding following freestyle’s path. The FIS representative that Johnston worked with between 1975 and 1979 is now spearheading snowboarding’s incorporation into the FIS. Johnston was asked if he wanted the job; he turned it down, preferring to stay with freestyle.
"I’ve just grown with it, as I’ve grown with my own business as a stockbroker," he says.
The future includes getting acro — the new name for ballet — included as an official Olympic event, perhaps at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, in the country that gave birth to freestyle. Dual mogul competitions, which were re-introduced this season, will also likely become more frequent.
Unlike the ’70s, the athletes, the sponsors and the ski areas are all happy with the sport. The athletes, in particular, he says are a "bright, multi-talented, wonderful group of people to be with."
But for Johnston the real measure of freestyle’s success is "the precision with which we run the sport. An athlete can come out after 10 years and still walk.
"There’s a lot to it; it’s not just bigger is better."