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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.

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.

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 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 former 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 50, he was until a couple of years ago the only chairman the committee had ever had. He is still an honourary member of the committee.

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 former 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 for the first time.

Johnston, who has been involved in the Vancouver-Whistler bid for the 2010 Olympics, feels freestyle had to conform to FIS and Olympic standards in order to survive.

"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," he said a few years ago.

"Did we take the ‘free’ out of freestyle?" Johnston asks. "To some degree, but we had to make it safe."

Chris Robinson, who succeeded Johnston as chairman of the FIS freestyle committee, acknowledges freestyle’s growth had become somewhat stifled under FIS rules. But two years ago the FIS allowed some freestyle skiers, such as 1998 Olympic moguls champion Jonny Moseley, to participate in new school events like the X Games. However, this year Moseley has come back to the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team in order to try and qualify for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"We applaud the innovation and spirit that has breathed new life into skiing in recent years and hope it continues," Robinson told Pique Newsmagazine last month in response to an ad protesting the FIS putting on new school-style Big Air events.

"We would never discourage any of the amazing things that are happening on skis, we simply want to give it another forum to gain exposure to skiers and fans around the world, so that the sport continues to grow."

Freestyle has continued to grow, both within the FIS and among new school skiers. And although sometimes it appears never the twain shall meet, in order for the sport to know where it is going, it has to know where it came from.

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