December 03, 1999 Features & Images » Feature Story

pop culture on stick 

Pop culture on a stick Snowboarding following a path blazed by freestyle skiing By Bob Barnett In the early 1970s Doug Pfeiffer, one of the first proponents of freestyle or hot dog skiing, wrote in one of his Skiing magazine columns about trying to explain the appeal of the new sport, asking: "Don’t you ever get tired of watching ski racers turning left and right?" Freestyle skiing was everything ski racing wasn’t: it was radical, it allowed for self expression, the rules were made up on the fly, and it challenged ski racing’s Euro-centric hold on the ski industry with a Made in America form of competition that appealed to even non-skiers. But the new sport had teething problems. The rules were a little too loose, the push for self expression a little too strong and the result was a number of tragic injuries which left people paralyzed. Law suits were flying instead of skiers. Ski areas and sponsors wanted no part of it and freestyle skiing dropped out of sight. The sport had to be redefined, and the man who took up that challenge was West Vancouver’s John Johnston, a member of the Blackcomb Freestyle World Cup Society and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympic bid group. To save freestyle Johnston took what had been a pro sport and turned it amateur. "We had to grow freestyle into the national ski federations system," Johnston said a few years ago while recalling the transition period of the late ’70s and early ’80s. It took four years of lobbying the FIS — the Federation Internationale de Ski — to convince them to accept freestyle skiing. Johnston felt that being under the FIS umbrella was the only way international standards for safety could be established. In the spring of 1979 Johnston became chairman of the FIS Freestyle Committee and went to work putting together a freestyle World Cup circuit in time for the 1980-81 season. The first freestyle world championships were held in 1986 and in 1992 mogul skiing made its debut as a full Olympic sport at the Albertville Games in France. In 1994 aerials joined moguls as a medal sport at the Lillehammer Olympics. Nearly two years ago, at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, American Jonny Moseley won the gold medal in moguls skiing. Moseley is a flamboyant character, a media favourite and just the sort of personality needed to keep freestyle skiing in the spotlight. But last season the bottom appeared to fall out of freestyle skiing. A sponsor for the whole freestyle World Cup circuit could not be found. Acro, the third freestyle discipline, was almost completely absent from the circuit, as sponsors and television networks decided it wasn’t interesting enough. And Moseley and others spent part of the season competing in non-FIS events like the made-for-TV X-Games and pro mogul competitions. "Freestyle has to re-invent itself, get back to being fun," Johnston said last winter. "We’ve been dedicated to getting the sport into the Olympics, and in the process we’ve killed acro. We’ve got to return to our hot dog roots, to freeriding and making it fun again." Ironically, the title sponsor for the freestyle World Cup circuit two years ago, Nokia, decided to spend its money sponsoring the FIS snowboard World Cup circuit. Snowboarding, at least until a couple of years ago, seemed to be the lightning rod for some of the anti-establishment spirit that gave birth to freestyle skiing in the ’70s. Snowboarders discovered their own way to have fun on the mountains, developed their own techniques and tricks. A snowboard culture developed that was in many ways the opposite of skiing: snowboard clothing was drab and baggy while skiwear was bright and sleek; skiing was represented by established stars while in snowboarding anyone could be a star — because the sport was so new there was no hierarchy. In some mind’s Ross Rebagliati’s positive dope test at Nagano was confirmation snowboarding was home to a rebellious, counter-culture. Others couldn’t figure out what snowboarding was doing in the Olympics in the first place, since in their minds the whole sport was against everything the Olympics represent. While on the surface snowboarding appears to be a much hotter property than freestyle skiing today — there’s currently a billboard in Vancouver for a financial company that features a snowboarder — the foundations for the two sports are very different. That is, assuming the Olympics are the pinnacle of both sports. Where Johnston built a foundation for freestyle skiing within the national skiing federation system, including development programs and junior competition circuits all leading to a World Cup tour, snowboarding is halfway between the old hot dogger pro circuits and the national system. "Wayne Wong and those guys in the ’70s, they were self supporting," says Mark Taylor, chairman of this weekend’s FIS snowboard World Cup event. "That’s where snowboarding is now. There are some guys who have been in it a while and don’t want to be part of a national team, but the Canadian Snowboard Federation is trying to develop the younger riders through the national system. "Freestyle got organized. The CSF is still maturing as an organization," Taylor says. And it’s not easy getting young boarders to commit to a national program that still doesn’t have the funds to support all snowboarding disciplines — especially when there are private sponsors out there willing to commit substantial dollars to individual riders and put up big prize money at events. So the question has to be asked: Are the Olympics and the FIS system of national federations the way to go for snowboarding, or is the rival International Snowboard Federation — which pooh-poohs the Olympics — and a series of pro events, some of which are designed for television, closer to the heart of the sport? Taylor, who tries to stick to organizing a snowboarding event and stay out of the politics, notes that events such as the X Games draw huge television audiences in North America, but attract less interest in Europe. On the other hand, World Cup events attract coverage from the mainstream sports press, partly because they are part of a circuit with a ranking system and overall standings, but television ratings in North America don’t approach those of the X Games. The FIS World Cup circuits also lead to the Olympics. "The Olympic tie for a sport is huge, it’s something everyone can relate to," Taylor says. "Some athletes can boycott the Olympics and make a statement, and more power to them. But the Olympics are still seen by most of the world as the pinnacle of sports. "In my opinion, if snowboarding was not part of the Olympics the sales of snowboards would be no where near what they are," Taylor concludes. At the same time, the FIS has to realize its regulations can restrict a sport, prevent it from being as dynamic as it could be, which is what has happened to freestyle skiing. "I don’t think freestyle’s dying," Taylor says. "It just hasn’t adopted to the new school of freeskiing quickly enough." The new school freeskiing or freeriding is, in some ways, another return to the roots of the sport. Freeskiing is all about self expression and playing within the mountain’s rules, rather than completing a series of required manoeuvres or conforming to some world ranking system. Freeskiing was born out of so-called extreme skiing, mixed in with a little snowboard attitude, a tip of the hat to the terrain parks and some bright promoters who saw the marketing potential in all of that. The excitement and the money has drawn competitors like Moseley away from the FIS World Cup freestyle tour. Its attracted sponsors who have put up money for new videos and advertising for new magazines which have sprouted up in support of freeriding, proclaiming "skiing is cool again." It’s also had an impact on the FIS tours. "I could see snowboarding could go the way freestyle has and become too staid," Taylor says. "The creativity, the dynamic in the sport — skiing or snowboarding — has to be maintained." And that gets back to Pfeiffer’s comments of 25 years ago. Freestyle, snowboarding, new school freeriding and ski racing have all been forced to evolve with the times, to varying degrees, not just to maintain interest in the sports but to re-discover the roots of what made sliding down a hill exciting in the first place. And perhaps its the roots of the sport which are overlooked too often, while we focus on the Olympics or the X Games.

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