27 MARCH 2018 • 1:30PM
The 2018 Winter Olympics marked the 20th anniversary of snowboarding at the Games. It’s been a landmark year for the sport, but where did its remarkable journey begin?
When snowboarding arrived on the scene in the mid 1980s, it wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Thanks to a lack of control on the slopes, as well as a lack of social etiquette, boarders were unpopular with ski resorts and the skiing industry in general.
But because of this hostile reaction, snowboarding owes skiing a huge debt of gratitude. It’s rarely acknowledged and certainly wasn’t intentional, but without skiing’s vitriol and prejudice in the late 80s and early 90s, snowboarding would never have become as popular as it is today.
As the fledgling sport battled a pubescent identity crisis, having the skiing establishment to rail against gave it the kind of cast‑iron cool that marketing wet dreams are made of. And so ad execs catapulted snowboarding into the mainstream, where it was used in everything from Juicy Fruit adverts to James Bond opening sequences. It also caught the eye of the world’s biggest sporting event, the Olympic Games.
After Barcelona ’92, the Olympics reformatted itself. The most obvious change was the decision to stage the Winter Olympics in alternate years to the summer Games. And behind the scenes, the funding model changed. Rather than relying almost solely on American TV rights deals, the Olympics would look at a global sponsorship model.
Two things happened as a result. Winter sports stepped out of the shadow of the perennially more marketable Summer Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) went in search of sports that appealed to younger audiences – after all, that’s who the sponsors want their advertising to appeal to.
Action sports would always offer youth appeal, but they were a potential poisoned chalice for the Games’ pristine public image. Organisers wanted the ad revenue, but were they ready for skaters, surfers and snowboarders and their anti-social habits?
In 1996 it was announced that snowboarding would make its debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. It had been fast-tracked ahead of a host of other more traditional sports, and my theory is that it was the most palatable youth market option for two reasons. Firstly, it was legal, unlike street skateboarding (the most popular incarnation of skating at the time). Secondly, it could be overseen by skiing’s governing body, with whom the IOC already had a great working relationship.
Unfortunately, it’s the second point that caused the biggest backlash. Relations between skiing and snowboarding were not as harmonious as they are today, and the decision ruffled a lot of feathers. Terje Haakonsen, one of the world’s top snowboarders at the time, refused to attend the Games. Today he is rightly given legendary status among snowboarding’s core community for the example he set in standing up for the sport. There is no doubt he sacrificed personal gain for the greater good, but for my money, he missed a trick. Had he gone and won, then made a stand, it would have been a statement on a global stage. Instead, his noble gesture went largely unnoticed and allowed the IOC to carry on regardless.
Much harder to ignore was the stunning debut in 1998 of Ross Rebagliati from Canada. After winning the first ever snowboard gold medal in giant slalom, he confirmed every snowboarding stereotype and the IOC ’s worst fears when he tested positive for marijuana use. Rebagliati was initially stripped of his medal, but it was later reinstated when authorities conceded that marijuana wasn’t actually on the list of banned substances (it is now). The drama was quickly brushed aside when a successful halfpipe event, with accompanying viewing figures, delivered everything the IOC had hoped for.
Salt Lake City in 2002 offered snowboarders the chance to contest Olympic medals in the US, the sport’s spiritual home. Both the men’s and women’s halfpipe were won by American athletes, with Ross Powers and an 18-year-old Kelly Clark claiming gold. Lesley McKenna became the first British snowboarder to compete at the Olympic Games, finishing 17th in the women’s pipe.
For the Turin Olympics in 2006, snowboard cross was added to the schedule of events and proved an instant hit, with elbow-to-elbow racing that looked like Mad Max on ice. Lindsey Jacobellis of the US was stripped of her dignity in the final – leading by a comfortable margin, she fell while showboating on the last jump, and ended up with a silver medal as a consolation prize. This was also the year America’s Shaun White introduced himself to the world by winning an Olympic gold after a snowboarding masterclass in the halfpipe.
Four years later, in Vancouver 2010, White won the halfpipe at a canter and used his victory lap to unveil a brand new trick; freeskiing became a part of the games with the introduction of skicross, which usurped the highly anticipated snowboard cross; and Great Britain fielded three athletes.
But it was the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi that proved to be snowboarding’s coming of age, with the introduction of a new freestyle event. Slopestyle is a discipline that reflects the kind of snowboarding that most people do in a resort, snowdome or dryslope – essentially riding through a terrain park – and it opened the Olympics to a vast new field of aspiring competitors. And it wasn’t just for snowboarders, as freesking was also invited to the Olympic party. When you combine the medals won in slopestyle, halfpipe, snowboard and ski cross (ignoring the old-fashioned but ever-present ski aerials, ski moguls and parallel snowboard slaloms) the 12 gold medals in freestyle events outstripped alpine skiing’s 10 medals for the first time.
This was a huge milestone, reflecting the steady upward trend of TV viewing figures for freestyle sports over the previous three Winter Olympics. At the peak of the Sochi Games, 92 million people were watching the snowboarding, compared to 78m for freeskiing and 77m for alpine skiing. In the context of a global audience, snowboarding is now officially the blue riband event on snow.
In the UK the introduction of slopestyle to the Games meant that suddenly we were a force to be reckoned with in snowboarding and freeskiing, and increased funding from UK Sport precipitated some big changes. Lesley McKenna, the three-time Olympian in the snowboard halfpipe, had made the transition from competitor to head coach for snowboarding’s park and pipe riders.
McKenna joined forces with Hamish McKnight and Pat Sharples, the head coaches of the snowboard and freeskiing programmes, to pool their resources and unite freeskiing and snowboarding under one roof. At the time it was a very progressive move, but the decision has been confirmed as best practice, with powerhouse nations like the US following suit.
These workings behind the scenes were rewarded with mainstream success, in the shape of Britain’s first Olympic medal on snow in 90 years in Sochi. Bristol’s Jenny Jones won bronze in the snowboard slopestyle, while top 10 finishes from snowboarders Billy Morgan and Jamie Nicholls and skiers James Woods and Katie Summerhayes proved to UK Sport that its money was being well spent. As a result, more funds have been invested in British freestyle skiing and snowboarding in the following four-year cycle.
And so the stage was set for Pyeongchang. Last month Team GB travelled to South Korea with its biggest ever team of park and pipe skiers and snowboarders, and no shortage of world-beating talent. Another discipline was added, snowboard big air, that played to our squad’s already formidable strengths.
It returned with two medals in the freestyle events. Izzy Atkin claimed third place on the podium in the ski slopestyle events followed by snowboarder Billy Morgan who won the Team’s second bronze in the big air final on the final day of the competition.
Team GB hit their medal target and Pyeongchang was labelled a success. Billy Morgan, who learnt to snowboard on his local dry slope in Southampton, is now the poster boy for the future of British snowboarding and with his laid-back, can-do attitude there’s no better role model for the young riders progressing through the rants. Next stop Beijing.
Meet Billy and the team at the British Championships in Laax
The British Freestyle Ski and Snowboard Championships (the BRITS) is returning to the freestyle haven of Laax in Switzerland from April 1 to 8 for a week-long schedule of competitions and events, all to celebrate the very best of British skiing and snowboarding talent.
Competing alongside youngsters from the age of 11 will be some of GB Park and Pipe’s top riders, including Billy Morgan – who last year, walked away with the surprise title of British snowboard cross champion. There’s also chance to brush shoulders with the elite athletes at a number of social events including Ed Leigh’s Swiss alter-ego’s sell-out game show, ‘Monsieur Poudreuse’s Mounting Quiz’ and a fancy dress night dedicated to all this beginning with the letter B.
“The BRITS is bang on. You get to ride the best freestyle park in the World, and get a taste of proper competition, but in this encouraging environment with all your mates. The parties aren’t bad, either… which is nice,” said Morgan.
Packages are still on sale at the-brits.com, including accommodation and lift pass packages, flights and transfer information.