Did the Olympics Change Freeskiing?
Yes, no, maybe.
Joss Christensen says that, aside from a few creepy Facebook messages, the weirdest part of being an Olympic gold medalist is suddenly getting noticed. It’s someone coming up to you in the grocery store, or on the train in New York City and thanking you for doing your part for America, even though, really, all you’ve been doing is what you do pretty much every day.
It isn’t that the sport itself has changed, it’s that the crowd paying attention has shifted, at least temporarily. Christensen, and the other athletes who won medals, or those who were picked to be human-interest stories are feeling it most directly. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He says that, at the very least, the Olympics gave park skiing some context. “I think most people didn’t really respect or understand our sport. I’ve seen a huge positive outcome. My landlord was really stoked. He had been a little confused about what I actually did.”
On the front end, the impetus for getting slope and pipe Olympifed was a legitimacy and equality. Freeskiing athletes wanted to be perceived as just that, athletes, and they didn’t want to be second tier to snowboarding, which became an Olympic sport in ’98 without any effort, or much desire for that matter, from snowboarders. “I believed that the Olympics would bring our sport to the worlds’ eyes, that more people would be intrigued and want to be a part of it, that more women and girls would come out to compete because there was now a big carrot on the line. I saw the Olympics as having the potential to help our sport grow,” says Jen Hudak, who started advocating for Olympic inclusion in 2003. Hudak and others spent a decade putting in the legwork to make slope and pipe medal sports.
The other side of the fight about Olympic freeskiing has been the idea that letting the FIS regulate freeskiing, and giving the events more structure would erode the roots of the sport, it’s essential freeness. There was a worry that contest skiing would become mechanical and uncreative, exactly the opposite of what freeskiing was supposed to be. Similar fears arose around the Nagano games, when snowboarding was introduced. In fact, Jake Burton and Bonfire’s Brad Steward filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team because they didn’t want the sport that they’d built to be corrupted, or turned into something that they didn’t believe in.
But, similar to snowboarding, neither the fears nor the biggest aspirations really came true. Skiing still got less airplay than figure skating (and the women got less attention than the men), but comp skiing didn’t become a corpo soulless robot monster, either. People pushed themselves in reasonably appropriate ways—for instance Henrik Harlaut’s nose butter triple cork 1620—and for the most part the runs were creative and progressive. Kids who exclusively ride in contests or have Target for a sponsor are still doing just that, but that doesn’t mean the spirit was squashed. “People got a little bit of a glimpse and saw how much fun we’re having,” says Christensen.
Ultimately it was the process more than the actual Games that changed things. In ramping up to Sochi and even before that, in petitioning to be included, the X Games grew, the AFP was born, girls got more prize money and more events, athletes started training like athletes. By the time the Olympics rolled around, it was just another contest, albeit one with a bit more hype. Park skiing didn’t need to be legitimized, because it had already solidified itself. “This has been our main focus for the last two years, but we had already put in the work to be ready. Now it was time to have fun and let it all hang out,” says Skogen Sprang, the U.S. slopestyle coach.
Christensen says he was actually impressed by both the event and the public’s response. “Most of us were pretty skeptical, I felt it went as well as it could have,” he says. “I hope it doesn’t change it too much, and that it’s more of an outreach, so that there are more contests and sponsors to help build our sport in a good way.” It’s too soon to say for sure, but some skiers have picked up non-endemic sponsorship, and Sprang says he foresees more mainstream opportunities for his athletes.
Several weeks after the Games, the buzz has died down, and everyone involved says that things feel pretty normal again. Sprang says that inside the bubble nothing feels really different, but that when he talked to non-skier friends, they have a greater awareness. “I think in the broad perspective many more people now know what slopestyle is and have an idea of what these guys and girls go out and do everyday,” he says.
Hudak says it’ll be hard to tell for a while if the Olympics will have any direct effect, but now the impetus is on the people involved to grow the sport. Skiing still has plenty of room to grow. “Now that the masses may pay a little more attention to what goes on in the next few years at X Games and Dew Tour it’s the athletes job, as well as coaches, judges, agents etcetera, to continue to push the sport in the right direction and have fun doing it,” says Sprang.
And, on the upside, having your sport on national television means that more people will understand it, even just a little bit. “At the end of the day we’re not trying to be pop culture,” Christensen says. “But it’s nice that I don’t have to explain to my extended family what I’m doing with my life anymore.”
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