The moral abomination of the Olympics and how money and TV put women's snowboarders at risk

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Never forget the true motive of the Olympic movement. Do not let the glitz of the Opening Ceremonies obfuscate it, the performance of the athletes cloud it, the harmonious gathering of countries confuse it. The Olympics exist to make money and enrich those who run them, and whenever their racket runs into conflict with morality, as it did Monday afternoon, the winner is a foregone conclusion.

Money rules. Greed triumphs. Misplaced priorities win gold.

The women’s snowboarding slopestyle contest should not have run Monday. The whipping wind — the same wind that prompted the International Ski Federation earlier in the day to cancel an alpine-skiing event — flung snowboard riders about the course at Phoenix Snow Park and impelled others simply to pull up before jumps, lest they subject themselves to shattered bones or shredded ligaments. Of the 50 runs, 41 included a stumble or crash. Luckily, there were no serious injuries. American Jamie Anderson won her second consecutive slopestyle gold medal, and it felt to her fellow riders more like a footnote than something to celebrate.

“It’s just a [expletive] show,” Dutch rider Cheryl Maas said, and she spoke for a vast majority of athletes who voiced their concerns to contest officials and were summarily ignored. This surprised exactly nobody. FIS consigns snowboarding to steerage at every opportunity possible, and in this case, the riders were convinced their well-being was sacrificed to the altar of the television networks that pay billions of dollars to program the Olympics.

In a statement, FIS did not address these concerns. It said “the first priority for FIS is the safety of the athletes and FIS would never stage a competition if this could not be assured” and that “the nature of outdoor sports also requires adapting to the elements.”

Surely if the first priority for FIS were the safety of the athletes, it would have, you know, consulted the athletes and not relied on the word of their coaches. It didn’t. And, hey, while FIS is lying about its priorities, might as well mix in a dollop of victim blaming for good measure. This is classic, feckless, governing-body garbage. It is as gross as it is typical.

Carla Somaini of Switzerland was among the many riders who crashed in the women’s snowslope final. (Getty)
Carla Somaini of Switzerland was among the many riders who crashed in the women’s snowslope final. (Getty)

The Olympics run through Feb. 25. The slopestyle contest did not need to happen Monday. TV needed it to. With the cancellation of the giant slalom, a hole tore open in NBC’s primetime programming. Both rounds of slopestyle filled it, if not quite ably.

Compared to what the riders throw in better conditions, the runs were an abomination, unworthy of their quadrennial stage. Anderson tempered hers to account for the wind and didn’t unleash any of the double-flipping, triple-twisting madness that defines her. The sport’s considerable progress since the Sochi Games never revealed itself, and a day after American Red Gerard’s spectacular gold-medal-winning run, the women paled because FIS filched their opportunity to thrive.

“When it’s alpine, they have a higher status,” said Norwegian rider Silje Norendal, one of the world’s best, who fell in her second run and finished fourth. “And they really want a good show. I feel like we’re definitely coming in second. We can actually get super hurt. And it’s just really unfair. It’s such a young sport. It’s just sad that we all feel sometimes that we’re coming in second.”

Norendal understood as well as anyone the hazards of the course. At a windy test event here in 2016, she crashed, broke her arm and spent four days in the hospital with internal injuries. During training this week, Australian teenager Tess Coady blew out her knee after the wind grabbed ahold of her.

On Sunday, the qualifying round was canceled due to excessive winds, and Norendal said contest director Roby Moresi told her: “If it’s scary, I’m not gonna make you girls go.” She wasn’t certain what caused Moresi to relent. After postponing the contest, FIS, in consultation with coaches, green-lighted it.

“And I think that’s so dumb, because coaches don’t ride the course,” Canadian rider Spencer O’Brien said. “I trust my coach so much, and I would not let him speak for me. In cases like this, you have to speak to the riders and have to see how they feel about their safety. And that wasn’t taken into consideration.

“We honestly didn’t get a say,” she continued. “There was no riders’ meeting to discuss options or to see if the majority wanted to ride or didn’t want to ride. We just got told we had to go.”

Imagine that. Their job is to launch themselves 50 feet into the air, to contort their bodies in inconceivable fashion, to believe that the rails are well-constructed and the jumps sound and the landings clean. Their livelihoods — their lives — rely on trust. And the people in whom they placed that trust sold them out.

FIS never bothered to go into the riders’ tent and solicit the opinion of the women without whom there would be no television program because doing so would’ve disrupted the power dynamic that gives FIS leverage to impose itself. It understands snowboarders, already fearful of the governing body, won’t say no.

And they didn’t. They started practice, and once that happened, they were in competition mode, too far along to turn back, even if their instincts told them this was wrong and selfish.

“A lot of girls felt uncomfortable,” said Anna Gasser, a medal favorite who fell twice and finished 15th. “There were only a few that were OK with it. Funny that the one that wanted it the most won the contest.”

It’s true: Anderson was one of three riders pushing for the event to be held. As others fretted — “All I wanted to do was just sit up top and cry,” Norendal said — Anderson tried to encourage others to go. A cynic might say that she did so knowing the conditions played to her advantage. She saw it another way.

“I was just kind of trying to stay in my zone, stay optimistic,” Anderson said. “I knew there was wind, obviously, but who knows when and where there’s not going to be wind?”

The bitter cold and biting wind are one of the PyeongChang Games’ defining features. The weather could remain perilous. And beyond that, for all of the disappointment with FIS, snowboarders don’t exactly genuflect to the Olympics, with so many saying it’s just another contest and not the Shangri-La so many other sports see it as. And, of course, the riders do understand the danger of their job and its inherent risk.

All of these things are true. They don’t absolve FIS for its negligence and whatever powers that be pressured it into running the slopestyle contest. All anyone needed to do was ask Cheryl Maas what it’s like to snowboard in high winds, and they’d have known cancellation was the only choice.

Earlier this week, when a gust of wind caught her mid-air, Maas said: “I had so much time to think. For a second, I was like, ‘Please put me down softly.’ I don’t really believe in God, but I am praying to someone up there, ‘Don’t put me in a hospital.’ To have that mid-air, it’s crazy you have those kinds of thoughts. You should be feeling good and confident.”

Feeling good and confident? Pssssh. Like the Olympics cares about that. It’s about one thing and one thing only, and nothing – not the women who deserved better, not the wind that endangered them, not anyone or anything – can stop them from grubbing for and groveling at the money that exterminates whatever morality they may have had in the first place.


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