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Much work ahead for ski, snowboard industries

The origins of Labour Day date back to April of 1872, when the Toronto Trades Assembly organized the first North American ‘workingman’s demonstration’ of any significance.

The origins of Labour Day date back to April of 1872, when the Toronto Trades Assembly organized the first North American ‘workingman’s demonstration’ of any significance. About 10,000 Torontonians turned out for a parade and to listen to speeches calling for the abolition of the law that decreed trade unions were criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade.

Labour Day doesn’t carry quite the same weight today. For most of us it signals the end of summer, one final long weekend before going back to school or work and preparing for a winter of labour that lies ahead.

In this neck of the smoldering woods, Labour Day signals the start of the scramble to get ready for the ski season, which starts in just two and a half months. Brains shift gears on the Tuesday after Labour Day, as we realize summer is effectively over, fall is almost upon us and we search for winter forecasts to validate our faith that the snow will be deep and plentiful this winter.

It was while making this mental transition over the Labour Day weekend that I stumbled across a television news story about how oversize racquets have changed the sport of tennis. This was a news story, not sports.

The story was produced by CNN and aired locally on B.C. CTV. It coincided with the first week of the U.S. Open tennis tournament and the retirement of American tennis star Pete Sampras, who told CNN how the serve and volley game was disappearing with the large racquets.

It’s not that I have anything against tennis, but this was considered news. Admittedly, news is scarce during the summer months. Governments are in recess, people are on holidays, decisions are postponed. And perhaps B.C. CTV, in airing the CNN segment, was looking for some relief from forest fire news stories. But I had to wonder, what are the chances of a story about how shaped skis have changed that sport appearing on network television news?

Thus I began my Labour Day labouring to compare two leisurely pursuits, which have, in fact, become industries.

How is it I even know about Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, the Williams sisters and others when I don’t follow or play tennis? That’s part of the difference between tennis and skiing/snowboarding; there is a hierarchy of stars and personalities in tennis and the general public recognize these people. Tennis stars can also build and show off their personalities on the court.

Skiing and boarding stars, on the other hand, are either "cool dudes" who are satisfied with their status in the minute world of extreme skiing and boarding, or they are Europeans with little recognition on this side of the Atlantic. How many people outside of Whistler could name two top-level skiers or boarders?

But it’s more than just personalities. Tennis is easier for people to relate to than skiing or boarding. Even if we don’t play the game, nearly everyone has at one time or another picked up a racquet somewhere and tried to hit the ball over the #&%*! net.

Fewer people have tried to slide down a snowy slope, or looked forward to trying. John MacLachlan Gray, after spending time in Whistler Village over Christmas a couple of years ago, wrote of skiing: "I understand the thrill of skiing has to do with cold clean air, immense vistas and the sensation of speed; but cold air and immense vistas are a Canadian commonplace, and I have enough speed in my life, thanks. Did the year 2000 go by fast enough for you? Enjoying the downhill slope of your physical condition? Is your hair collecting snow?

"There, you see? You're skiing already."

Gray’s perception of skiing is as accurate as any other to the many who have never skied or boarded. It takes a bit of faith, and a little cheek, to try skiing or boarding, while you could tryout tennis as a sport between television commercials.

Tennis stars also play the game on the same size court as everyone else. The top skiers and boarders huck cliffs and race down pitches that are far removed from what the average skier/boarder experiences on the slopes. This helps the cache of "extreme" that skiing and boarding seem to covet and makes for cool television commercials, but that’s where so many people’s understanding of the winter sports begins and ends.

Tennis is also portable; it can be played indoors or outdoors anywhere there’s a flat spot to build courts. And some communities provide courts for the general public to play on at no charge. None of those characteristics apply to skiing and boarding.

The popularity of tennis, with players and sponsors, has led to the tennis channel, just as there is a golf channel and a motorsport channel. While there are television shows about skiing and boarding, a specific channel seems to be a long way off.

None of this is particularly relevant to most of us who just enjoy skiing and boarding. But thinking back to how tennis equipment made the news the other night, and then ahead to which sports will be part of the 2010 Olympics and how much B.C. has invested in the Olympics, I wondered if there wasn’t some work to do.