Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Shaun White was featured on the front screen on nytimes.com yesterday in a video that is part of the “Olympic Voices” feature.
White, it seems, is one of the biggest stars of this Winter Olympics. You could almost go so far as to say he’s received the lion’s share of the media spotlight. He’s got a definite starring role as a gold medal contender who has single-handedly pushed the progression of the sport of snowboarding by inventing and nailing new tricks that no one else has even attempted yet. The fire red hair, toothy smile and action figure doll looks don’t hurt either.
Then there was the piece on “60 Minutes” that featured White training in his own helicopter-accessed/Red Bull-funded/$2 million private half pipe near Silverton, where he could invent and master new tricks in private. The reporter also accompanied White for a spin in his Lamborghini, turning the same shade of green/gray he did when he boarded the helicopter. He said White makes about $10 million a year.
It certainly puts things into perspective in terms of how far the sport of snowboarding has come, evolving from an underground subculture into a full-bore mainstream commodity with major corporate sponsors jumping on board (so to speak).
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When snowboarding made its debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, I was working as an editor for Transworld Snowboarding magazine. With only two media credentials available for our sizable staff, I didn’t get to go to Japan. Instead, I was sent to Sugarloaf, Maine, to cover the first-ever Olympic qualifying event, the Grand Prix.
At the time the sport was totally divided on its position of bringing snowboarding into such a mainstream event. Snowboarding’s governing body, the International Snowboard Federation, wasn’t recognized by the International Olympic Committee. The sport’s integration into the Olympics was handed to the IOC-approved Federation International du Ski, a European-based organization that handled skiing. The FIS formed a U.S. Snowboard Team that was required to become members of the FIS, wear uniforms, and follow all kinds of rules and requirements and organization that was very much the antithesis of the individualistic soul of the sport.
Norwegian Terje Haakonsen, the best snowboarder in the world at the time, boycotted the Olympics.
Snowboarders were supposed to be the rebels of the mountain, not the guys in uniform. It was during a time when pro riders didn’t even want to compete in organized events but made their living traveling the world and filming for magazines and independently produced videos.
It was a cush lifestyle to be sure, with plenty of sponsorship money to go around without (let’s be honest) having to work for it. As an editor at the magazine, my job for the winter months was to organize these trips to whatever locations I pleased and invite whoever I wanted, which meant I had a lot of people pretending to be my friend.
So when I was sent to Sugarloaf to cover a contest I wondered what I had done to deserve to be punished. Even worse, they wanted me to cover it for our new website, not for the print magazine, another demotion in my eyes. Who cared about the damn Internet anyway? Did anyone really care about the Olympics?
Shaun White would have been 12 years old at the time, but I’d seen him on the scene for at least four years already, always with his mom in tow. She was the total soccer mom, driving everyone crazy from the sidelines and always having something to say, whether her opinion was invited or not. No doubt there was a fine line between supporting her son and pushing him too hard, but it was clear from the time the kid was 6 years old he was a prodigy. We just had no idea the sport would grow to be as big as its future star.
Corporate sponsorships were unheard of and unwelcome. One of the biggest upheavals at the magazine was when the publisher approved a scented Calvin Klein ad to the tune of a record-breaking advertising sales rate. Our staff was mortified. Money was not supposed to be the priority back then. It was all about being core and authentic and independent.
Snowboarders were even wary of the X Games when it first started. Especially when, at its debut, the event featured sports like super modified shovel racing and speed ice climbing as part of the “extreme” package. The word “extreme” was banished from the magazine vernacular. We were instructed to call snowboarding an “action sport” or a “board sport.”
I wrote a scathing review of those first X Games. For years, ESPN’s former media coordinator Ian Votterri wouldn’t let me forget it.
“Why should I give you a credential again?” he’d tease. “Because you bashed my event?”
It became a joke because it was clear my little review did nothing to slow the momentum of the X Games. The athletes liked what national television had to offer, even if it meant jumping over a giant pool of Mountain Dew that was put in the middle of the slopestyle course. The term “sell out” was being used less frequently.
Going mainstream certainly had its benefits, like fame and money for starters. A whole generation of pro riders became very wealthy when various companies went public and the athletes cashed in their stock options. These were good times.
Now White is a multimillionaire and snowboarding is receiving as much play as Alpine skiing and figure skating. Hannah Teter, the little tomboy from Vermont, is being featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue alongside Alpine megastar Lindsey Vonn.
So yeah, after being involved with this sport for some 20 odd years I may be suffering from a little nostalgia. It seems our little sport of snowboarding is all grown up.
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