Once a sport confined to the Winter X Games world, snowboarding's presence in the Olympics will expand even more this year with the addition of slopestyle in Sochi. If you’re unfamiliar with this free-spirited event, here is a rundown on the basics to get an idea of what to expect.
Where did this event come from?
Upon making its Olympics debut at the 1998 Nagano Games, the first men's and women's medals in snowboarding were awarded for the giant slalom and halfpipe. The menu of events grew in 2006 when snowboard cross made the Olympics for Torino.
Given the exploding popularity of extreme sports, it was only a matter of time before slopestyle made its entry into the Olympic spotlight. In hopes of drawing a younger audience, the International Olympic Committee fast-tracked slopestyle snowboarding – and slopestyle skiing – into the 2014 Games.
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Although much of the mainstream attention on snowboarding tends to focus on the halfpipe, the lower terrain of slopestyle courses makes it a more accessible sport for aspiring snowboarders who do not live near high mountain ranges. There will be a total of 10 snowboarding gold medals awarded in Sochi.
What is it?
Competitions are staged on an obstacle course that resembles a skateboard park covered with snow. The course, which descends down a mountain terrain, features rails, boxes and jump platforms on which the snowboarders must perform twists, flips and grabs to score points.
Six judges will rate each run on a 100-point scale. Like most other judged events, snowboarders are scored based on the creativity, difficulty and execution of their tricks. Landings in which any part of the rider (hands, rear end, etc.) except for the board touches the ground result in a deduction.
Competitors do not have to meet set requirements on the tricks they perform during a run, but leaving a strong overall impression on the judges is crucial in racking up the big points.
The event begins with a qualification round, where riders who turn in the highest scores advance to the semifinal and final. The athlete who posts the best score in the final wins gold.
What about the venue?
Located along a stretch of snow in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains, the slopestyle course at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park runs 635 meters (2,083 feet) long and features a 147-meter vertical drop.
The first section of the course has three rail areas, while the second portion will have three jumps that get progressively bigger to allow snowboarders momentum to perform their most difficult tricks toward the end of the run. Courses seen in the Dew Tour and X Games normally have four rail and jump sections.
Any similarities to other events?
Skiers and snowboarders might have a contentious history when it comes to sharing the same snow, but the two cliques will play nice in Sochi. Slopestyle skiing competitions — also entering the Olympic picture in 2014 — will be held at Rosa Khutor as well.
Snowboarding viewers more familiar with the halfpipe can also expect to see higher jumps in slopestyle, especially as riders reach the lower portion of the course. Look for riders to attempt plenty of high-risk triple corks (three flips and four spins) in hopes of winning over the judges.
Who should we watch in Sochi?
Shaun White — arguably the Michael Jordan of snowboarding — is expected to compete in the first Olympics men’s slopestyle event. White, a halfpipe specialist, has five Winter X Games titles in slopestyle, but hasn’t won gold in the event since 2009.
[ Related: Shaun White goes for gold — twice — in Sochi ]
A pair of Canadians, Max Parrot and Mark McMorris, will be two of White's biggest competition. Parrot is the 2014 Winter X Games slopestyle champion, and McMorris won the title in 2013.
[ Related: Mark McMorris fractures rib in slopestyle final ]
On the women’s side, four-time X Games slopestyle champion Jamie Anderson will be the top American gold medal prospect. Anderson will likely compete against Silje Norendal of Norway and Spencer O’Brien of Canada fo the big prize.
Fans excited about catching slopestyle snowboarding at the Olympics won’t have to wait too long. The preliminary rounds for the men and women get underway on Feb. 6. The men’s gold medal will be handed out on Feb. 8, while the women’s final is scheduled the following day.