On the heels of this past winter’s torrential contest soak, and the subsequent saturated weekends from the long side of October to the short side of April, one barely had time to take a breath, let alone take pause to reflect. Let’s do so now, shall we?
What has snowboarding become? Who’s behind the wheel? What’s up with all the contests? And how sure of itself can snowboarding be when it trips over and collapses under the temptation of television coverage and Bruce Jenner distinction? Yes, please. Let’s reflect on the pros and cons of cultivated competitive snowboarding in this, the year of both our discontent and The Sixteenth U.S. Open of Snowboarding.
Last season, a billion carrots were dangled in front of our world and almost all of them were gnawed down to ugly little nubs. Grand Prix this, World Cup that. Super big air, triple big air, first annual plywood spin-offs, 10,000-dollar purses, automobiles, and gold-yeah, Olympic gold. It was all very huge. It was all very expensive.
So who even cares about a contest like the U.S.Open?
Indeed. To the unseasoned observer, or over-seasoned MTV viewer, this year’s event resembled a tiny pebble in the gravel road of ’97/98 snowboard competition sub-excellence. And to those folks, The Open was just that-another contest. Another soggy taco, another poorly judged event, and another bunch of overly relaxed motherf-kers who were jumping around, draging their mittens in the slush, and laughing all the way to the bank.
Couldn’t be further from the truth, my jaded friends. The Open is not your average stop on the wintry contest catalog. Rather it’s a classic in every sense of the word. The U.S. Open became a happening sixteen years ago-ironically naming itself in the gigantic spirit of better-known golf and tennis events-inviting all comers (25 entrants in 1982!) to head on out to the ski slopes, slam their faces into wooden-stick gates, slide around inside a halfpipe of strategically placed snowy lumps, and have a good time-unknowingly setting itself up as a tradition. Historically memorable, excellence embodied, a classic. Simple, huh?
Exactly. When The Open was conceived, it was supposed to be a sort of see-you, see-me thing. Jake Burton Carpenter fantasized of a contest centered around getting any and all riders together regardless of today’s common denominators and uncommon barriers. Competition, as it turns out, was the other main motivating factor in pulling the event together. But it wasn’t today’s serious, all or nothing, game-face sort of competition you hear everyone bitching about as they roll into perfectly cut contest pipes. It was competition in the friendliest sense of the word. A way to bring people together and put to rest the rumors and speculation about who was good and how good they were. A defining moment, if you will. And with that moment outlined, sixteen years came and went-the U.S. Open a positive and important part of each one of them, setting the competition stage with a for-us-by-us style assembly that is known far and wide as one of snowboarding’s few “real” contests. Due to the fact that the affair seems to have been based on something undeniably good and whole (fun), The Open has also become the standard by which all other contests are measured.
Since its inception, snowboarding has steadily attracted more and more of our universe’s attention. In the most recent intervals, many people (other than those involved for the love of it) have decided that snowboarding is worthy of their attention. They were attracted by the quick growth and demographics of it all. They manufactured events (events to qualify for events, all-inclusionary events, premiere events, made-for-TV events) and then presented our activity to the world as a sport loosely based on successful O.G. affairs like The Open. Good for them. Some of those people have even converted and become comfortable within our world-having fun being involved in an activity that has become, for them, more than just business, or work, or basic drudgery.
But there’s something about The Open that’s bigger and more real than what snowboarding became last winter. Bigger than outsider involvement or any kind of watered-down, marketing-heavy version of the archetype; bigger than contest bibs, post-game interviews, the perfect wax job, forward lean, or lateral flex. It’s bigger than the FIS, ISF, IOC, USSA, ESPN, and the Olympics combined. It’s bigger than the sum of its Nor’easter parts-Stratton Mountain, hyper-booked hotels, media mush-mouths, industry ignoramuses, ruly and unruly locals, temporary hot tubs, and Mountain Dew; bigger than questionable judging, conspiracy theories, weather, the conditions, and the monotonous hullabaloo that goes down each evening after the all-important question, “What are you doing tonight?” It’s even bigger than Terje, what place he qualified, and what place he finished.
The Open has made a mark for snowboarding, and placed something real on the map that’s not directly connected to or dependent upon the Great Television Audience. It’s not in sunny Southern California, Florida, or any other nice soft climate, and it’s not kindled by the promise of huge profits. It has gently spilled over into local communities, filling their restaurants, shops, and bars with red-faced visitors, and contributing positively to the area’s economic growth and world-traveler draw. The Open has also helped snowboarding become an non-regional, non-gender-specific phenomenon, giving the East Coast something to hold onto during winter besides just glacial conditions, and giving the rest of the winter-dominated world a down-to-earth example to shoot for-not some unobtainable set of polished and well-toned brass rings.
So having arrived in the present, here we sit with an equidistant view of the last six months and the next six-able to take advantage of hindsight, speculate on foresight, and hunker down waiting for the second hand to tick. The sun will go up and down a bunch of times in coming days and weeks, breaths and moments will be taken and stolen respectively, and everyone will go through their wintry paces leading up to the U.S. Open-good stuff will happen, bad stuff will happen, and after it’s all over, it’ll still be the contest everyone wanted to go to, the contest everyone had the best time at, and the contest that suggests by example how the rest of the world might go about pulling off their own competitive gatherings-with a heavy hand on the pulse of fun, celebration, and performance, thus denoting a classic worthy of a lofty title such as The U.S. Open of Snowboarding.