A sport too far 

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - acro-monius Whistlerite Julia Smart (Snell) competed in acro-skiing at the Olympics for the UK. In the photo she executes a Rock and Roll while training in Tignes, France, in 1987.
  • PHOTO submitted
  • acro-monius Whistlerite Julia Smart (Snell) competed in acro-skiing at the Olympics for the UK. In the photo she executes a Rock and Roll while training in Tignes, France, in 1987.

Apparently, there's a large, multi-discipline winter sports competition going on somewhere in Asia. I knew it was coming because a couple weeks back someone from CBC radio's Day 6 called to interview me not about anything currently happening in this distant contest, but about a sport that had once made it to the doorstep, lingered for a couple of iterations like a stray cat hoping to be fed, then was unceremoniously kicked to the curb from whence it came. I speak, of course, of ski ballet—a.k.a. acro-skiing. And the question Day 6 pondered was not a new one: how does a sport just disappear?

While there are a number of reasons, ultimately, the rise-and-fall of ballet is testament to the fact that skiing is a relentlessly inventive — and re-inventive — catch-all with some 34 disciplines/sub-disciplines. Ballet isn't the only one to come and go.

Ski ballet had its roots in the same show-offery that spawned its sister freestyle disciplines of aerials and moguls — personal expression and the "look what I can do!" so inherent to skiing. In some ways, it went back to the early 1930s, usurping tricks seen in old black-and-white ski movies. But it was also fuelled by the freewheeling sprit of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which included liberal amounts of wine, weed and a "f--k the man" ethos — skiing's race-minded establishment included. This being the Woodstock generation, North American youth were busy rejecting many status quo institutions, including the strictures associated with alpine racing and constipated Euro ski technique. Instead, they threw out the rules (sound familiar?), innovating tricks and creating the "hot-dog" milieu from which emerged the troika of moguls, aerials, and ski ballet. The average recreational skier both related to and participated in freestyle; anyone could go out on their home mountain to try a Royal Christie, 360 or Outrigger.

Early freestylers competed in all three disciplines. Then, as often happens, skiers began to specialize, focusing on only one event, which elevated its technical threshold and drove participation numbers down. But the guys and gals who excelled were indeed athletes; if you tried some of it on your own without the right equipment (short skis, long poles) or knowing what you were doing, you could rip your knees to shreds.

Ballet skiers performed a 90-second routine set to music on a 12-degree to 15-degree, 160-metre course, which was scored by judges on the basis of artistic impression and technical difficulty. Because it combined elements of figure skating, dance, gymnastics, and theatre, different skiers pushed ballet in different directions, resulting in an uneven sport. Soon, however, it became a highly technical and formulaic event, differentiated, as in figure skating, only by the artistic interpretation of participants. There was a pro tour, and there was money.

The core trick was a pole-flip, or "Wong Banger," after its inventor Wayne Wong, Canadian freestyle legend and first world champion. Wong also birthed the Wongmill — a 540 tip roll he described as a corked-out version of something cribbed from a 1960s ski film. Pole flips evolved to include 720 and 900 spins ("Hurricanes"), and cross-over and reverse-leg manoeuvers.

A rarified part of the ski scene, ballet was already on the margins when, in 1979, freestyle's governing body voted to de-professionalize and seek amateur status in order to qualify for the Olympics. But ballet wouldn't impress as a demonstration sport in either Calgary 1988 or Albertville 1992 — it had been out of the public eye too long, TV ratings were low, and there was already controversy around other judged events. Most importantly, unlike dance and gymnastics, which were invented on flat surfaces, ski ballet traded all the dynamism of downhill skiing — gravity, speed, aggression, being on the edge of control — for a less-exciting display that didn't quite fit the received view, while moguls and aerials maintained those elements. The specialized gear, costumes, theatricality and pomposity of ballet were absurd to most people. (If you want see how absurd, check out the 1986 Willy Bogner film Fire and Ice or head down a YouTube rabbit hole of routines from the Calgary and Albertville Olympics.) Ultimately, there was cognitive dissonance for a global audience — as if taking skiing out of context to this extent was a bridge too far.

The term acro-skiing was supposed to offer a more complete description and make it more Olympic friendly. But it didn't do the job, as the name could neither distinguish nor save the sport. When acro-skiing wasn't accepted into the Olympics it began a slow decline; global participation numbers were only in the hundreds and kids were already turning to snowboarding in droves. Even though what the best acro-skiers were doing was pretty damn amazing, people couldn't relate and there was no viable pool of young talent.

Perhaps most telling was a broadcaster's performance during the Albertville Olympics. Hesitantly describing both tricks and judging as if she herself was unsure what was happening, she had to keep turning away to consult notes or cover the mike and ask someone a question, leaving nothing but dead air — as if the sport had just... disappeared.

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