OLYMPIC BIG AIR
Forget Halfpipe. Start By Replacing Freestyle Aerials
By Derek Taylor
With the Vancouver Olympics looming, it's inevitable that we are going to hear about the possible addition of halfpipe skiing to the five-ring circus. While it seems almost a foregone conclusion that it will happen by 2018, if not 2014, I personally feel that would be a mistake. Not on the part of the Olympics; halfpipe skiing is certainly worthy of Olympic status. On the contrary, the International Ski Federation (FIS) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have not yet proven they are worthy stewards of halfpipe skiing.
For evidence, look no further than the current freestyle skiing lineup in the Olympics. Aerials and mogul—both once freewheeling, hot-dogging expressions of creativity—have become stagnant and un-evolving. Moguls only adapted 10 years ago because Jonny Moseley, the X Games, and the new freestyle movement essentially forced them to. And since inverted airs were made legal following the 2002 Olympics, the sport still hasn't changed to the point where we are seeing anything that different in the bumps than what Moseley did in Salt Lake.
Moguls has been infiltrated and taken over by jocks; let's face it: When, since Moseley, has moguls skiing had a champion who is a true ambassador of skiing? Jeremy Bloom is a football player and an underwear model, and Toby Dawson retired from skiing after winning bronze in 2006 in hopes of taking up golf. (In Dawson's defense, he had much larger personal issues to deal with, such as finding his biological parents.) But at least it is still skiing. Freestyle aerials, quite simply, has become a sad bastardization of gymnastics put to snow.
Freestyle skiing was first recognized by FIS in 1979, and only given full-medal status in 1988. Considering the mass migration of athletes from traditional freestyle to the pipe in the late 90s, it's apparent that it didn't take long for FIS to ruin what Bob Burns, Wayne Wong, Eddie Lincoln, et al worked so hard to create. With that in mind, we should be very wary before we concede the pipe.
I can relate to freestyle skiers who want to see something that better represents our sport in the Olympics, however, and I do think there is a solution. Rather than give up control of yet another discipline, lobby the IOC to give us back one that they have already ruined. In short, replace freestyle aerials with big air.
Let's take a quick look at both disciplines:
Rather than looking at numbers, competition circuits, etc, let me ask this: When was the last time you were skiing at a resort and saw 70-degree aerial jump open for the public to hit?
In order to participate in traditional freestyle aerials, you need to join a team, attend a special school, or sign up for a camp at places such as the Utah Olympic Park. Yet the majority of ski areas have terrain parks where anyone can learn big air. As a discipline, it is much more accessible to the common skier.
Degree of difficulty
Aerialist might argue that their sport is more difficult. They are performing three flips and up to five rotations per trick. However, they are taking off forwards and landing forwards on all tricks. And the basics are still the same: setting and resetting rotations.
On the mathematics scale, aerials no longer has much of an advantage. Bobby Brown's gold-medal winning tricks at the Winter X Games featured two inversions and four rotations. T.J. Schiller's perfect score features two inversions and four and a half rotations.
Brown took off and landed backward, and Schiller landed backward, and their inversions off-axis.
Eleven years ago, during the first Winter X Games ski big air, J.F. Cusson's winning trick was a switch 720. In 1998, Eric Bergoust won the Olympic gold with a quad-twisting triple.
We already discussed the 2010 Winter X Games big air. The winning trick in this year's Olympics might feature one more rotation than Bergoust had 12 years ago.
One is "Skiing" the other is "Aerials."
When Eric Bergoust was invited to Powder's first Superpark, the crew essentially had to build an aerial jump for him. He wasn't comfortable hitting the tables tops and hips the other skiers were sessioning.
Come to think of it, when in the last 15 years have you seen a ski aerialist actually skiing? Not performing their aerial stunts, but slashing turns and getting face shots? Johnny Moseley, Candide Thovex, J.F. Cusson, Tanner Hall, Simon Dumont—all have had film parts where they are actually skiing. The way most people ski, albeit better.
Aerialists? Their skis aren't made to ski, they don't dress like skiers, they don't use poles. I think the last aerialist to be an actual skier was Trace Worthington.
Of course, the actual athletes are not to blame in this. The sport has gotten so specialized, it only caters to people pursing that specialty. The scoring and rules are so regimented, there is little room to expand the degree of difficulty or innovate. The blame falls squarely on the FIS.
There's no guarantee that FIS won't screw up big air the way they messed up aerials. But by replacing aerials with big air, they are at least hitting the reset button. And in 10 years, if they've managed to not screw the pooch this time, then we should trust them with halfpipe.