From Bond to Rebagliati the spirit of snowboarding fights to stay alive
By Fiona Macdonald
It’s 1985. A lone skier hurtles through Siberian wasteland, pursued by the KGB. One ski is lost in fire from an overhead helicopter, but the skier continues on a snowmobile. It too is shot at and explodes, and it seems that its driver is caught. Yet a piece of debris, landing conveniently next to him, provides his means of escape. Hopping onto the board, he glides over the rocky contours, taking out several agents as he turns and gracefully drops a cliff. Their legs flailing, his pursuers are left far behind as he rides snow and then water, cruising down a mountain and across a small lake.
Of course he is 007, and of course this is fiction. No scenes are as fantastic and improbable as those that open a Bond movie. But the secret agent’s ingenious descent down the slopes in A View To A Kill did not depend on an esoteric gadget created by Q, and the Beach Boys soundtrack accompanied a form of surfing that was to prove more attractive to the fun-seeker than the assassin.
In just over 10 years, snowboarding has evolved from a fringe activity pursued by a few, including agents of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, to a mainstream sport. And while Ross’s Gold will eventually be a run on Blackcomb, it represents much more for the growing flocks of professional riders and their sponsors. Coinciding as it does with Rebagliati becoming the first snowboarding client of the global sports marketing giant IMG, the medal has secured the sport’s position in both the competitive and corporate worlds. In snowboarding’s textbook timeline, the 1998 Nagano Games would be written in bold and might even merit a special font.
But a glance back at where snowboarding first began to leave its track in the steep terrain of winter sports reveals that in the beginning there was attitude, and then there was sport.
While skiing appears to have been used as a means of locomotion in Scandinavia for thousands of years, with early skis as cumbersome as sleighs and confined to straight running across valleys, snowboarding evolved to serve a far less utilitarian purpose. The pioneers of snowboarding were surfers and skateboarders, bringing to the snow a culture rather than just a desire to get from one place to another.
But when snowboarding won Olympic status faster than any other sport, the radical, counterculture, alternative lifestyle image of snowboarding ran up against the reality of professional sport. "Professional," after all, implies money — and as soon as a pastime becomes competition, the corporate appears.
Nowhere is this more clearly defined than in IMG, the company founded in the early 1960s by Mark McCormack, and in his words born "with the sports marketing industry as a whole... on the talents and charisma of Arnold Palmer." Athlete representation gave IMG inroads into a wide range of sports. McCormack claims that changes within a sport can be linked to particular individuals. He labels Tiger Woods a pioneer in the historic shift that golf is currently undergoing.
While signing Ross may appear to be an excursion from more established sports for IMG, this first step into snowboarding can be viewed as a reflection of the money and media potential of the sport.
"IMG has been successful because they’re good at identifying sports and the growth area of sports," states Brad Pelletier, former general manager of Nicklaus North and now director of the newly opened IMG office in Vancouver. "They were certainly looking at snowboarding before the Olympics — it was definitely a focus."
Just as the emergence of Tiger Woods marks a new direction for golf, IMG is picking up on a sport — snowboarding — and Ross, as the first Olympic gold medalist, is the name most associated with the sport.
Pelletier details the corporate cycle that has been taking place in the sport, from money invested on the manufacturing side, through greater exposure in-store and more people taking it up, to higher levels of sponsorship, which in turn attract more and more athletes. "It’s a whole process that grows, and you need that kind of general awareness on a macro scale to allow the lower levels to develop up through it."
This growth from the ground up appeared with the boom in snowboard sales in the early 1990s. Not only do snowboard sales now dwarf ski sales, but demographics confirm that the younger sport is snatching the youth market from skiing. That fact compelled the Federation International du Ski, the governing body for world skiing, to win control of the sport. While skiers initially did not profess a great deal of respect for snowboarders, a recognition of the money and future in snowboarding led the FIS to start a campaign to win the right to represent the sport at the Olympics. Although the International Snowboard Federation (ISF) had tried to take snowboarding to the Olympics years earlier, the International Olympic Committee awarded the more established FIS the Olympic rights.
Beyond the politics that this set off, the speed with which snowboarding became an Olympic sport reflects the market potential for the sport — which in many ways contradicts the original snowboarding ideal. The best halfpipe rider in the world, Norway’s Terje Haakonsen, tried to maintain that ideal through his boycott of the Olympics. Haakonsen explained in an interview with Sports Illustrated that "Snowboarding is about fresh tracks and carving powder and being yourself and not being judged by others. It’s not about nationalism and big money." He prefers instead to be around "happy people in a good place with lots of good food."
Ironically, the International Olympic Committee’s efforts to strip Ross of his gold medal for having trace amounts of marijuana in his system won him support from those who maintain that snowboarding is about being yourself and not being judged by others. As a result, Rebagliati sits on the cusp of the sport, at least for the moment, as a symbol of both the sport’s corporate and its alternative sides.
Yet even the alternative status of snowboarding may eventually feed into that corporate cycle. The outlaw image, propagated by the banning of the sport from the majority of ski areas until the late 1980s — riders are still not allowed on the hill where the Olympic snowboarding was held — can ultimately be converted into marketing power, as sponsors like Kokanee plug into that market. Ross’s suspension and reinstatement made him a cultural icon, and far from deterring corporate involvement, his role in the Olympics gave him the necessary "equity."
Although IMG was looking at snowboarding before the Olympics, when it comes to actual athletes, "it’s tough to go sign someone when nobody knows them," Pelletier explains, "so the Olympics obviously helped.
"Most sports have a certain athlete to draw attention to the sport, help sell the sport — snowboarding never had that. Ross has come onto the scene... and he stands to be that person and stands to do very well."
His fame is seen as beneficial to the sport at all levels, even though Rebagliati is a snowboard racer and most of the sport is more closely aligned with freestyle riding.
"Being the face of snowboarding, I think certainly within Canada, but even internationally, he has the recognition that will help to encourage the growth of snowboarding," Pelletier says.
In a world where athletes are "clients" with their own "market value," "it’s not necessarily the case that just because someone is a good athlete, he’s going to make good money. It depends on the sport, on the athlete’s accomplishments, on the personality," Pelletier says.
So to translate from corporate-speak, if the sport is snowboarding, an athlete’s "accomplishments" can be measured in nanograms per millilitre as well as in the time it takes him to get down a hill.
But in setting Ross up as the face for snowboarding, large companies like IMG may be cutting off the circulation from the body of developing riders. The continued investment in a small number of snowboarders could lead to a gap between these athletes and the mass of riders. Bob Allison, coach for the national team, as well as the Blackcomb Ski and Snowboard Club, recognizes this danger. At the moment, he suggests, "we can’t even compare what those few names in snowboarding can afford to do and what the rest of the field can do."
He warns that the growth of snowboard manufacturers appears to be slowing, as the market becomes saturated. "Things are tightening up — bigger companies are coming on board, making it harder for the smaller companies." This generally means cutting back on expenses, and when the biggest promotional expense is sponsoring team riders, the professional snowboarders are going to suffer. "People might still get equipment, but the salaries and schedules that go along with it aren’t there," says Allison.
The sport itself is unclear on where it’s going, at least on the competitive side. Although the events continue to grow, Allison labels it an "unhealthy" growth for developing snowboarding athletes, as "every promotional company is jumping on the bandwagon and wanting to put on an event." While this allows flexibility in choosing which events to go to, "as far as the nation, and putting some programs together for developing snowboarders, it’s chaotic, because there are pro-events all over the map."
Not only does this prevent setting tiers and determining where everybody sits on overall rankings, but it also leads to an imbalance between freestyle and racing.
"When all these promotional companies get in and put on random events everywhere, they put on whatever’s the easiest event to put on, not necessarily representing the sport as a whole," Allison says.
Perhaps any professional sport is inevitably driven by the market, but there are ways of controlling the competitions so that the corporate is not allowed free rein. Allison suggests that this is the role for the national governing body, who could put some money into developing snowboarders. While the door should be kept open to allow private teams who don’t want to fit into the mould of the national team to go out and sell their names, there is also a need for the governing body to ensure that not only all sides of the sport, but also more athletes than the top big names, are represented.
"There is no way that some of the lower guys, who are still talented riders, can get the sponsorship dollars that Mark Fawcett, Jasey Jay Anderson or Ross can... that’s where your nation comes in and fills that void," Allison says.
Allison believes that athlete representation by sports management companies could contribute to misrepresentation of the sport: "It’s fine for IMG to say that Ross is going to help at the grassroots, but if our nation doesn’t do anything to take advantage of that, they’re not going to do anything for the grassroots — it’s got to go hand-in-hand."
But IMG does not rely solely on its individual clients in promoting a sport, and Pelletier sees television as key in the growth of snowboarding.
"I'm sure we're going to see more televised snowboarding properties, which means that the money in the events themselves gets bigger, and the more money in them, the more interest there is from the athlete side to get involved because of the greater income potential through them."
And if snowboarding becomes televised, the form of competition needs to be both understandable and visually stimulating, a form arguably most embodied in boardercross.
Steve Jarrett, editor of SnowboardCanada, claims that freestyle is not immediately comprehensible to an audience, as it relies on subjective judging according to a scale which assumes knowledge on the part of the spectator. "The only way that snowboarding could become a spectator sport is by making it into an entertainment event," Jarrett says.
Although racing is more of a television property as it is easier to understand and more linear, it is perhaps the event which was first constructed for an Extreme television show that provides the ultimate spectacle, and at the same time keeps true to snowboarding.
Philippe Conte quit alpine racing after seven years to take up a competition which he describes as "the spirit of snowboarding," boardercross. It draws upon the main features of freeriding, a group activity which involves both going fast and getting air, and is the only snowboard discipline where both hard and soft boot riders meet head-to-head on the same course. Not only does boardercross present a well-rounded view of snowboarding, but it's also exciting to watch — there are no judges, no clocks, and the first one down wins.
Allison confirms the interest that boardercross has generated. "It'll be interesting to see how the whole competition side unfolds. You hear stories going, 'the entertainment's in boardercross, we should head towards boardercross'."
But whether it’s Ross, Haakonsen or the Man with the Golden Gun, the original snowboarding spirit comes from individual riders, rather than corporate sponsorship or the IOC.