Princess: Sold out in Sochi
Watching the men’s Olympic snowboard halfpipe competition Tuesday night was like watching the Broncos play in the Super Bowl. It was painful.
Not so much because Shaun White lost his crown, though that’s something I’ve perversely been wishing for a long time now. I mean, how many contests did he have to win, how much money did he have to earn, how much fame did he have to garner before he could give someone else a chance? And still it hurt to see him lose.
The really painful part was that halfpipe — it totally sucked. Imagine if the skating rink were half-melted and riddled with puddles and the ice skaters were still expected to do their big spinny-jumpy things and spins. It’s the exact same thing. I get it that all the competitors had to ride the same halfpipe, so it was still a “fair contest” (a fact that White himself acknowledged,) but it compromised the competitors’ ability to ride to their full potential. And on a world stage, that was really hard to watch.
The bummer of it is, this tenuous relationship between snowboarding and the Olympics goes back a long way.
When snowboarding made its debut at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, I was working as an editor for Transworld Snowboarding magazine. While introducing snowboarding to the Olympics was a pretty big deal, it was also highly controversial.
Snowboarding prided itself on not being a mainstream sport. It was alternative, with a rebellious, anti-establishment spirit and an identity all its own, with its own clothes, culture and lack of rules.
Back then, a lot of snowboarders were so anti-establishment that they also were anti-contest. They didn’t like the idea of their sport being organized. They didn’t like the idea of being judged. A lot of “pro” snowboarders made a very decent living traveling the world and doing photo and film shoots, building kickers and riding powder,goofing off and freeriding, and having the time of their lives. They didn’t need to train, they didn’t need to compete, and they sure as hell didn’t need to be on a team.
When the Olympics came along, snowboarding had no singular governing body, so the Federation International du Ski (FIS) was put in charge of organizing snowboarding for the Olympics. This enraged the riders who felt that a ski federation would not be able to represent them accurately. They were wary of the rigid regulations of the International Olympic Committee — even the idea of wearing a team uniform freaked them out.
Terje Haakonsen, a pro rider from Norway who was the best in the world at the time, boycotted that first Olympics. And after Tuesday night’s debacle, the rallying cry of snowboarders is, “Terje was right!”
Sixteen years later, the FIS is still in charge of snowboarding in the Olympics. And while they managed to build adequate halfpipes in Park City, Utah; Torino, Italy; and Vancouver, British Columbia they entirely missed the mark in Sochi. Team USA snowboarder Hannah Teter summed it up nicely for the Washington Post when she said, “They should … fix it so we can showcase snowboarding the way it needs to be showcased. Not as a junk show, which is what it was looking like right now.”
Even more painful than watching riders get caught up in the slushy mess of the flat bottom was watching crews try to “groom” the pipe by side-slipping down the gut on skis, throwing salt from little red buckets and then wetting it down with a garden hose. You would think, with what was the most expensive Olympics in history, they’d spring for a Pipe Dragon or at least hire someone who knows how to build a proper halfpipe. The riders tried to be big about it, but come on. Do you think Lindsey Vonn would have been willing to ski a downhill course that had moguls in the middle of it?
Which takes us back to Shaun White, our little Flying Tomato of yore who has grown up and transformed himself into some kind of Jim Morrison wannabe, sporting tight leather pants, studded belts and all-black ensembles that make him look like a metrosexual rocker (which, apparently, he is). Between earning $15 million a year from corporate sponsors, making cameo appearances in movies, doing television commercials and training at secret locations in order to garner an advantage over his peers, White is no longer a snowboarder — he’s a brand. And that’s exactly what his predecessors were trying to avoid, this idea of snowboarding “selling out.”
I saw Shaun make his debut at the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships in Stratton, Vt. (which was basically the Olympics of snowboarding back then), when he was 8 years old. He was a prodigy from day one. I remember his mom came with him to snowboard camp at Mount Hood. She was the total soccer mom. She drove everyone crazy, but his family already was very invested in his snowboarding. It was pretty clear to everyone from the start that the kid was a prodigy. His career already was being overmanaged.
I’ve interviewed Shaun maybe a half dozen times, and as a reporter, I looked forward to it because unlike many of his peers, he handled himself professionally and always had something relevant to say. But his drive to win was too great for humility. Winning was something that was programmed in him from such a young age that being average wasn’t an option. Still, he always struck me as a good kid.
In the end, maybe his loss is a good thing. Maybe this way he’ll be remembered for his grace in defeat instead of selling out his sport as a seven-figure celebrity diva. If only we could say the same for that damned halfpipe. When it came to Olympic snowboarding in Russia, something was definitely lost in translation.
The Princess is feeling nostalgic for her days in the snowboarding industry. Email your love to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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