Freestyle's evolution 

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 in a competition on 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.

Today, freestyle aerialists such as Nicolas Fontaine, who will be competing at the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships on Blackcomb later this month, are doing triple back flips with four twists, and landing them safely. The skills and technical expertise of freestyle skiers have grown exponentially since Johnston’s time. In fact, some are saying the technical requirements now imposed on freestyle skiers have become too regimented.

Freestyle’s journey from a pro circuit in the 1970s to a full Olympic sport in the 1990s has been marked by overwhelming popularity in North America, tragedies, a struggle for survival, success on an international level and, currently, suggestions the sport has become old and stuffy. Two years ago the acro event – formerly known as ballet – effectively died due to a lack of sponsor and TV interest. A major tour sponsor was also lost.

In the meantime, the so called new school of skiing has gained momentum in North America and staked a claim to being true to freestyle’s roots; keeping skiing free and fun.

Johnston, chairman of the organizing committee for the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships, has had a first hand view of freestyle’s evolution. In fact, if there is one single person most responsible for getting freestyle into the Olympics, it’s probably the Vancouver stockbroker. He admitted two years ago freestyle had to re-invent itself and get back to being fun, but he also understands the problems that nearly killed the sport more than 20 years ago.

When freestyle skiing – or hotdogging, as it was first called – burst on to the North American ski scene in the early 1970s it was like rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s – rebellious, anarchic. 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.

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