The Winter Olympics Ditches Snowboard Parallel Slalom for Big Air

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The jump at FIS Snowboard World Cup in Turkey. Miha Matavz photo.

The 2018 Olympics are already mired in controversy, from the still-undecided location to the potential lack of snow to the cost. Accidentally adding a little fuel to that fire, the International Olympic Committee recently decided to remove snowboarding parallel slalom and to add big air. While this doesn’t seem like a huge deal to a freestyle-focused American audience, it represents a major ding to many European countries’ chance to grab medals in 2018.

The US Ski and Snowboard Association, along with other countries with strong freestyle programs, lobbied to have big air added to the Olympics. Seeking to increase the Olympics' appeal to a youthful audience, the IOC obliged.

Speculation is circulating among athletes, coaches, and media that the U.S. is using the inclusion of big air to make a play for more medals. In other words, it’s much easier to remove a weak racing program than develop it. Others have argued that snowboard racing is no longer relevant, and that turning isn’t fundamentally as exciting as spinning off huge jumps.

To sort through how this decision actually came about and why it’s important, we asked the USSA, FIS, two Olympic coaches, and the United States’ only Olympic snowboard alpine racer to explain what went down and what this means for snowboarding.

Jeremy Forster, USSA Program Director for Freeskiing and Snowboarding

The US, among others, has been pushing FIS & the IOC to include more youthful events like big air for years. Miha Matavz photo.

We submitted the proposal to include big air (along with several other nations including Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand) in 2012 as part of our continued effort to promote appealing new events to the FIS and IOC for potential Olympic inclusion. This follows the similar inclusion in 2006 of snowboard cross, 2010 of skier cross, and the 2014 inclusion of halfpipe skiing and slopestyle skiing and snowboarding. It's been encouraging to see the FIS and IOC continue to support new events into the Winter Olympic Games that have strong youth appeal.

It’s important for snowboarding to have a strong and diverse presence in the Olympics, and we expect that parallel giant slalom and snowboard cross will continue to be an important part of the Games.

Alpine snowboarding is an important part of many of our U.S. snowboarding clubs in America and serves an important role in the foundation of the sport. While there has been commercial interest in some nations, it has been limited in the U.S.

Mike Jankowski, US Snowboarding Head Coach

US Snowboard Team athlete Ty Walker drops in. Miha Matavz photo.

Having big air added to the Olympic program is huge for the current pros and for the up-and-coming youngsters hoping to win an Olympic medal someday. For those at the very top of the slopestyle game, they are outstanding jumpers and amazing rail riders, too. Big air events would definitely favor those slopestyle riders who are the best jumpers.

Big air, in different forms, has been a part of snowboard competitions since the very beginning. It has also been an X Games event since 1997 when ESPN built a huge jump in San Diego for the Summer X Games. Big air has always been fun to watch due to the fact that anything can happen–new tricks can be invented and new, unlikely heros can emerge.

At the Olympics in Sochi, the snowboard race events were absolutely huge with sold out, enthusiastic crowds filling the stadiums.

Riders always gravitate to whatever part of snowboarding they love the most–whether it be racing, jumping, halfpipe, street rails or powder. Racing has always been a major part of snowboarding since the earliest days, and so has big air. The popularity of different snowboard disciplines varies depending on the regions of the country and the regions of the world, just like lots of other sports.

Riders always gravitate to whatever part of snowboarding they love the most–whether it be racing, jumping, halfpipe, street rails or powder. Racing has always been a major part of snowboarding since the earliest days, and so has big air. The popularity of different snowboard disciplines varies depending on the regions of the country and the regions of the world, just like lots of other sports.

Look at car and truck competitions. There is everything from drag racing, to NASCAR, to freestyle motocross and monster trucks. There is huge appeal in all those sports to all different walks of life. The same goes for snowboarding and all action sports competitions. Some people prefer racing and other people prefer halfpipe or jumps or big mountain events. It is all a matter of personal preference.

Oliver Kraus, FIS Snowboard Media Coordinator

US Snowboard Team rider Ryan Stassel under the lights. Miha Matavz photo.

Parallel slalom (PSL), which was introduced for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, has been removed. I would not say big air is replacing PSL. A total of four events have been added to the program. One of them [is] big air. IOC wants to reach for 100 events in total, so some [events] have to be removed to achieve that goal. Unfortunately, the first to go was PSL.

I would not say big air is replacing PSL. A total of four events have been added to the program. One of them [is] big air. IOC wants to reach for 100 events in total, so some [events] have to be removed to achieve that goal.

Bud Keene, Olympic Gold Medal Halfpipe Coach

Keene and White at the 2006 Olympics. BK Pro photo.

I’m very firm that PSL should stay an Olympic event. First of all, alpine snowboard racing is the beginning of competition for snowboarding. It fathered freestyle. When I competed in the US Open, every single snowboarder did every event–slalom, giant slalom, downhill, super G. It wasn’t until 1988 that we had the first halfpipe competition.

People like Craig Kelly didn’t fly across the country to do one event. They came to do four events. They weren’t agro about racing. They were having fun in the start gate. From a historical perspective, it’s important to understand that these icons of freestyle raced, and loved it.

I was a race coach for years. I coached very successful racers. I fully believe that my ability to coach freestyle snowboarding came from me cutting my teeth as a race coach. I rode alpine boots, hit jumps on them, rode pipe. I didn’t see a line between [racing and freestyle]. I didn’t feel vibed by anybody in those days.

As time has gone on, freestyle has taken the forefront of snowboarding. Racing is pointed at as something that’s not fun and restrictive. That’s not something kids think. They like going around gates. It’s fun. It teaches kids how to be better snowboarders in a somewhat safe environment. It requires an extreme amount of skill, focus, and training. It builds you as a snowboarder and as an athlete.

Bud Keene at the top of the pipe at Dew Tour with Shaun White. BK Pro photo.

Making left and right turns is the most basic expression of snowboarding. Shaun White makes left and right turns. Danny Davis makes left and right turns. Seth Wescott makes left and right turns. Justin Reiter makes left and right turns. Mark McMorris makes left and right turns. It’s the thing we all share. Nobody makes all left turns. If you couldn’t turn, you would be somewhat useless in the halfpipe, or on a slopestyle course. To say that racing isn’t relevant is nonsense. It’s as relevant as taking a step with your right foot and left foot.

Directly and indirectly, it contributes in a real way to the quality of the competitor we have in slope, pipe, and boardercross. It doesn’t require trampolines, snowcats, or air bags. It just requires strapping in, going downhill, and making turns.

Making left and right turns is the most basic expression of snowboarding. It’s the thing we all share. Nobody makes all left turns. If you couldn’t turn, you would be somewhat useless in the halfpipe, or on a slopestyle course. To say that racing isn’t relevant is nonsense. It’s as relevant as taking a step with your right foot and left foot. Directly and indirectly it contributes in an real way to the quality of the competitor we have in slope, pipe, and boardercross.

I’m not comparing the sexiness of one discipline or of other. There’s as much to be said for a timed event as there is to be said for a judged event. The clock doesn’t lie.

There were thousands of screaming fans at Sochi rooting for racing. The racer who won, Vic Wild, happened to be an ex-American [racing for Russia], and that injected energy into the discussion.

The people that have some sort of background in the technical aspect of snowboarding, racing or not, seem to be able to ultimately reinvent themselves. If turning well is a thread through your competitive career, there’s more soul. You’re able to perpetuate that in later in life. Some of the best riders in the world, with regard to style, have the strongest turning skills.

If you come up as a solid left and right turner, I see those people continue to find a way to have fun. If not, you move away from snowboarder faster. No one can just jump and land forever.

Justin Reiter, Olympic alpine snowboard racer

Olympic snowboard alpine racer Justin Reiter lays into a carve. Oliver Kraus photo.

In 2010, the USSA elected to stop funding an elite alpine snowboarding team. They made this decision because an initiative was put forth to them showing that snowboard racing didn’t have numbers to support greater funding efforts. They didn’t feel that they had elite athletes to win medals at the Olympics. The majority of the alpine snowboarding team anticipated retiring after 2010. In laymen’s terms, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.

I retired, and then came back. My whole focus was to have fun in this sport. I left racing on a sour note because I had missed the Olympics. After I retired, I got depressed because I couldn’t find the same passion in other things that I found in snowboarding. I didn’t expect funding from USSA.

Now I have multiple World Cup podiums, and a silver medal at Worlds, so the USSA has recognized that and they have to fund me. If an athlete has done X or Y accomplishment-wise, the USSA has to fund them. So, they give me a stipend, which I put towards expenses.

Justin on his way to winning the PSL at the Moscow stop of the 2015 World Cup. Vladimir Trifonov photo via the USSA.

That amount of support I receive is nothing compared to what Vic Wild [who left the US to race for Russia] and other European athletes receive. I’m still thankful. I wish they would fund an elite team so young athletes have something to aspire to. I looked up to guys on national athlete team, and that’s what I wish for up-and-coming athletes.

I thought that we were moving in positive direction. Then out of nowhere, this IOC decision came. We had a rider’s meeting among all the World Cup athletes, and I said, ‘Listen, I know in my gut that US is making a play for big air, and the easiest way is to do it is to get racing out.’ The writing’s been on the wall.

I thought IOC would see through a couple of things, namely that this is a play from US to secure medals. We won just under 50% of the snowboarding medals in Sochi. That’s a massive domination of the sport. There are 12 Olympic snowboard medals. If you were a country that was dominant in snowboarding, with the exception of alpine snowboard racing, what can you do rather than invest in developing? Eliminate it. If I were Germany, Russia, or another country with a strong alpine snowboarding program, I would be pissed.

Leitner might still be able to celebrate World Cup wins, but snowboard slalom is on out the at the Olympics. Vladimir Trifonov photo via the USSA.

NBC has a $7 billion deal with the IOC. Snowboarding and freeskiing have huge market shares of their market coverage, and NBC needs good stories. The USSA has a lot of weight on their shoulders to perform and provide content.

Big air is a massive move for snowboarding, I support those guys. I admire them. I respect them. I want them to be in the Olympic games. They’re ninjas. There’s a reason they do what they do. They’re the best in the world.

We’ll see quads in the Olympic big air event. Do you know what else has quads? Skiing aerials. Is snowboarding, which everyone talks about the essence of style and presence, under attack by pure progression?

Big air is a massive move for snowboarding, I support those guys. I admire them. I respect them. I want them to be in the Olympic games. They’re ninjas. There’s a reason they do what they do. They’re the best in the world.

We’ll see quads in the Olympic big air event. Do you know what else has quads? Skiing aerials. Is snowboarding, which everyone talks about the essence of style and presence, under attack by pure progression?

When Sage Kotsenburg won gold in Sochi, I was so excited, not just because he was a good dude, but because he had style for days. He didn’t go out there and throw the gnarliest hucks. He did things his way. That’s what freestyle snowboarding is about.

In big air, it would be cool to see riders throwing a back five method, or one footed McTwist, just middle fingers up. But that’s not going to happen. Everyone wants that Olympic medal. I’m guilty of it. Everyone's guilty of it. Blood is in the water, everyone wants a bite of it.

I would assume that there would have to have both big air and PSL in the Olympics. Because of the size of the Olympic venue and its huge cost, the IOC is having a hard time attracting new host cities. They are trying to limit the footprint of Olympic games.

As an environmentalist, I support that. However, it doesn’t match up. A big air jump is built out of scaffolding, and it’s a huge cost. There will also be more athletes going to the Olympics because of big air.

Reiter throws a frontside slash outside of the gates. Oliver Kraus photo.

I believe that snowboard racing has a really influential place, to keep snowboarding sustainable. In terms of the market share, we’re losing that hand over fist to skiing.

More people compete in racing than half pipe at a young age. It’s the gateway to all snowboard competition. It teaches solid fundamentals. It becomes a lifelong process.

When people don’t learn how to actually ride a snowboard, they might progress in the park until you’re 25. Once you reach your late 20's and 30's, you can’t ride park and pipe any more. You’re not able to pursue the extreme side of snowboarding anymore. When people really can’t ride, what do they do? They go skiing. That’s one of the elements we overlook–that people get out of the sport.

Racing teaches you how to carve, and brings legacy continuation into freeriding. If you look at surfing, you start on something forgiving, like a long board. As you get older, you go back to surfing a long board. Snowboarding doesn’t have that. You might have snowboarded for 30 years and now you don’t have the sort of lifestyle where you can wear a flat-brimmed hat at 45. What if you work at a law firm? You’re no longer core?

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