KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — It is time for snowboarders to take back their sport. They talk about it all the time. How the International Ski Federation runs snowboarding's Olympic program. How the International Olympic Committee never listens to their gripes. Well, this is where they can do something about it. The bumpy, slushy joke of a halfpipe at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park offers riders the greatest opportunity possible to make a stand against the overlords who don't care about them.
Until those in charge of salvaging the halfpipe can bring it up to competition-level standards, every rider, from Shaun White and Iouri Podladtchikov to Torah Bright and Hannah Teter on down, should boycott the Sochi Games. Come together as a sport. Rage against the institutions that seem happy to hurl them into substandard conditions to fulfill a few hours of prime-time programming. Say no to anything but a halfpipe that will allow them to throw the sorts of tricks that made snowboarding such an appealing sport to the Olympics in the first place.
To call the relationship between snowboarding and the Olympics dysfunctional is an insult to dysfunction. They're like a divorced couple that lives together for tax purposes. The IOC gets the cachet of a sport that appeals to young viewers. Snowboarding gets an audience that dwarfs any the X Games ever will provide. And though the mutual benefits behoove both sides, the power in this relationship is the snowboarders' as long as they're willing to grab hold of it.
So far, they've been far more talk than action. Teter, the gold medalist in 2006, said after a Monday night practice session that "they should push [the competitions] back," though she admitted that getting all the riders to agree was a long shot. White, the impresario who stands to lose the most from a bad pipe, said the conditions prevented him from throwing his best trick, the cab double 1440, but he did not seem inclined to start a mass withdrawal.
Rider after rider pointed out the obvious: With less than 15 hours to recut the pipe and let it set before men's qualifying at 2 p.m. local time, the chances of an Olympic-quality pipe were almost nil. And complicating matters were the warm weather and raindrops that peppered the mountain region as Monday drew to a close, all of which conspired to make a mess of a situation even uglier.
With all of those variables — the desire for change, the perfect avenue to effect it, an IOC that's particularly vulnerable with yet another thing in the Sochi Games going wrong and the legitimate fear of putting on a mediocre performance that doesn't come close to showcasing the beauty and grace of their sport — never has there been a better time for the snowboarders to set a list of demands, starting with a very simple one.
Let us do our best.
This is not idle whining or excessive bloviating. No matter what anyone thinks of snowboarding — and judging by some of the early backlash when rider Danny Davis told Yahoo Sports that the pipe was "garbage," plenty of people still believe the sport is little more than an excuse to get high and say "stoked" — it is every athlete's right to receive the best possible canvas on which to display his or her talent. And snowboarders, with their incredible spinning prowess and displays of pure power, are unquestionably athletes. People who believe otherwise ought to reconsider such closed-minded prejudice.
Any boycott would root itself in a powerful place: the sanctity of competition. Already the IOC has shown a reckless disregard for snowboarders. The lead pipe cutter, John Melville of Development Snowparks, told Yahoo Sports that part of the pipe's problems stemmed from restrictions placed on his tending to it by television networks. Melville said concerns about the noise that his pipe-cutting equipment makes prompted broadcasters to request that he not use it during competition on the moguls course, which adjoins the halfpipe in the Extreme Park.
If that does not motivate the snowboarders to band together and demand better treatment, nothing will. The IOC is happy to leech off snowboarding's demographic. When it comes to the quality of rides and safety of the riders, though, all that matters are the precious television partnerships that line their pockets with billions of dollars.
This is not symbiosis. It is parasitism. It is a powerful entity preying on one that, to this point, has shown unity only in theory and words. Since 1998, when the Olympics introduced snowboarding, riders have maintained an uneasy-at-best relationship with FIS. Norwegian Terje Haakonsen, then considered the best rider in the world and now the godfather of the sport, refused to participate in the Olympics for the very reasons that now threaten snowboarding's integrity. He was a prophet who understood that the IOC cares only about profit.
For the good of snowboarding, someone must channel Haakonsen. White is the best candidate; he is also, because of his corporate ties, the unlikeliest. The sponsors who keep snowboarding afloat understand that the Olympics are great for their bottom lines, and a boycott threatens to upset them. Still, the companies that endorse snowboarders do so knowing that they're embracing a counterculture sport, and nothing would be more counterculture than staring at a sporting monolith and demanding change on the fly.
There are others. Between Teter and Bright, the last two halfpipe gold medalists, there is ample star power, intelligence and moxie to spark a harmonious front.
[Photos: Meet the medal winners from Team USA]
"The Olympics is cool and all, but it kind of takes from snowboarding," Bright, an Australian, told Yahoo Sports in late January. "The IOC —they need us in the Olympics. Terje Haakonsen boycotted in '98 because he saw what it wasn't going to be. The Olympics is beneficial to snowboarding because it creates a huge world stage, but there was a lot of discontent in our industry because we need to unionize to be able to make it what we want."
And on the men's side, the voice of Davis is the strongest and most well-respected in the industry. In a mid-January conversation, Davis lamented how snowboarding fell out of the riders' hands and into those who control it for their gain alone.
"When you look at the current state of snowboarding, we don't run our sport," Davis told Yahoo Sports. "We're run by skiers, which is frustrating. It blows my mind. And it's one of those things I will fight very hard to change from here on out.
"Any sport where guys can make a great living— NFL, baseball, hockey, tennis —they don't give a [expletive] about the Olympics. It's because they have their own thing. It's true to what that sport is. It's not about the IOC making a bunch of money."
Organizing a boycott on such short notice could be dangerous. The IOC is a vindictive organization that could respond by striking snowboarding from the Olympic program, no matter how ill a purpose it would serve. The likelier result would be sheer panic and desperate kowtowing to the riders' request. Snowboarding's appeal is almost certainly stronger than the IOC's will. This is not a fight the IOC wants to fight — not with the performance and safety of the athletes in question, and with any moral authority long ago lost in its sea of corruption.
Riders kept wiping out in the pipe Monday night, and that was in an improved version from the day before. Bright left practice early after a particularly nasty fall. Podladtchikov spent most of his night doing straight airs, lest he invite the pain of a plunge onto the ice. Snowboarding was not at its finest then, and barring some Melville magic, it will not be at its finest for the finals.
So it is time to come together, to rage, to say no. It is time for an influential organizing body like the USOC to back the riders instead of playing modern-day Pravda and pretending like everything is just dandy. It is time for snowboarders to take back their sport from FIS and demand that the IOC give its real sanctioning body, the World Snowboard Tour, the control it deserves, because it actually cares about the riders.
It is time for the talk to end and the action —the rightful action— to begin.
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