With the news of Red Bull and Tanner Hall ending their partnership, we felt it appropriate to post this column by John Symms that originally appeared in the September 2011 issue (40.1) of POWDER. —Ed.
By John Symms
Allow me to let you in on a little secret. Those energy drink cans your heroes are drinking from at the bottom of their televised contest runs? They’re not full of energy drink; they’re full of water. That’s what athletes drink when they want to function at the highest level. Anybody who tells you otherwise is full of, shall we say, energy drink.
In freestyle skiing events at the 2011 Winter X Games, the Red Bulls narrowly defended the title of the greatest energy drink in action sports, winning five medals. The Monsters were close behind with four. The Rockstars rounded out the medal count with two, especially proud to be atop the slopestyle podium. The real winners, though, were the manufacturers of taurine.
The problem is that, in our little sport, which takes place largely on the margins of the margins of world consciousness, the most prominent players are the manufacturers and purveyors of a beverages that have no direct significance to the activity. Red Bull might help you down three or four extra shots of vodka in a night, but it won’t help you ski better. Monster’s greatest contribution to skiing, as far as I can tell, is a flat-brim and a mutagen green claw mark on every third head at every major event.
Energy drink logos have gotten so integrated into the iconography of freestyle skiing that, more than tricks, more than results, more than any objective or sport-related standard, the most persuasive indicator that this or that dude is legit is the die-cut on his helmet. These brands designate and define the most significant and influential freestyle skiers. They don’t only brand athletic feats. They buy out the people that perform them.
Last November, when Tanner Hall appeared in a Fox Business News segment, highlighting his entrepreneurial and athletic achievements, he did so with a Red Bull logo front and center on his flat-brimmed forehead, no doubt per his contract with the company. But (for all the wonderful things you may think they are) Fox Business News viewers are not skiers. They’re suit-and-tie wearing folks not savvy to our own esoteric emblems of distinction.
When the common man sees a guy with a logo on his brow, he doesn’t see a champion. He sees a company spokesperson. That might be why Kobe, though we all certainly know what brand of shoes he endorses, doesn’t slap a Swoosh on his forehead for everytelevision interview. Sometimes he even wears a suit. A little subtlety can go a long way for a guy’s credibility. And when top athletes lose credibility in the eyes of the uninitiated, so does their sport.
What if Torin Yater-Wallace (who has already learned at his young age not only how to lay down a nasty silver-medal pipe run, but also been taught to flash his Target-tattooed palms to the camera at the end of it) became the face of KFC? Would he stomp wild doubles in a red-and-white helmet shaped like an upside-down chicken bucket? Would he becontractually obligated to grow a goatee and frost it white? Can a 16-year-old even grow a goatee? “We have the company’s finest genetic engineers working on it, sir.”
Our next guest on Good Morning America is 15-year-old Torin Yater-Wallace. Last week this talented youngster made skiing history in Aspen, becoming the youngest ever to win a Winter X Games silver medal. How does it feel, Torin?
“It feels amazing, Matt Lauer. I just want to say a big thank you to all my sponsors, especially KFC. You’ve heard that Red Bull gives you wings. Well, KFC gives you wings, breasts, thighs and legs for $4.99. And for every 12-piece bucket sold, they will give one back to a hungry child in Africa. It’s all part of their new The Colonel Gives Backs charity initiative and it’s something I’m very proud to be a part of.”
Skiers on the way up see the logos on freestyle luminaries and begin to confuse athletic excellence withability to generate exposure. They’re no longer training with becoming great skiers in mind. Rather, they’re trying to mold themselves into effective advertising tools. The result is an entire sport brought to you by the marketing department of [Insert Company Here].