Back where we started from.

Back where we started from.

By Matt Barr
Back in September, I had lunch with Reto Lamm in Munich and asked him if he actually thought FIS would join forces with the TTR and combine events to form a joint qualification process for the 2014 Olympic Games. “My guess is probably not. And that’s when we’ll have to make the loudest noise.”

Three months later, we know FIS’s response, which came in the form of a letter to Lamm from FIS Secretary General Sarah Lewis: “As we have already discussed, FIS is open to cooperating with TTR and its member events to continue to develop the sport and its visibility. However, this is a process that needs to begin at a lower level than the top events to build trust and understanding between the organizations and persons involved”.

There was no engagement with the issues that have been convulsing the sport for months.

In other words, we are open to change – as long as it is on our terms. In the meantime, we’ll continue to organize things—as long as it is on our terms. There was no engagement with the issues that have been convulsing the sport for months. No acknowledgment that snowboarders may need a little bit more explanation after yet again having control of our sport’s biggest platform handed to the ski industry. And, of course, nothing about why this decision is for the good of snowboarding.  So I decided to try and speak to Sarah Lewis in person to try to see what she thought about these issues.

I wanted her to explain why this shadowy council of unelected skiers had unilaterally made the decision not to collaborate with the TTR against the advice of almost everybody involved in top level competitive snowboarding. Hell, even against the advice of members of their own organization, as revealed by the minutes of FIS Snowboard Committee Meeting held on October 7th 2010.

As has been widely reported, at that meeting, to a ’round of applause’ and ‘general agreement,’ New Zealand Snowboard Committee member Ross Palmer suggested that it was time FIS “sat down with TTR and any other relevant snowboard organizations, and offer to take truly meaningful steps to work side by side with them to progress our sports. And we must be willing to make substantive, meaningful compromise. A complete makeover in our approach to our snowboarding sports, and in our approach to TTR and others is now required. Tinkering around the fringes and offering up small concessions simply will not get us to where we need to be as one of the caretakers of the sport of snowboarding.”

Worthy words that we now know were completely ignored when the subsequent decision was made by the FIS Council. I also wanted to know how she responded to the almost unanimous criticism of the decision that followed. As we know, across the winter sports world, the reaction was one of dismay that the ski federation had not embraced this progressive opportunity for snowboarding.

Never in the history of snowboarding has the door been left so wide open for a reasonable collaboration between TTR and FIS.

For Reto Lamm, “The response from FIS gives no answers to the issues that top-level snowboarding is facing today. With our proposal for a joint qualification system, the TTR has clearly shown its willingness to move considerably in the interest of the sport of freestyle snowboarding. Never in the history of snowboarding has the door been left so wide open for a reasonable collaboration between TTR and FIS. With this response from FIS, the hope for a joint, united Olympic Qualification System in freestyle snowboarding has disappeared for the foreseeable future.”

We Are Snowboarding (WAS) figurehead Chas Guldemond, one of the top slopestyle riders in the world and somebody with a real chance of gold at the Sochi Games, was equally downbeat. “As a community, we feel FIS does not provide enough existing events at an Olympic qualifying level to run the qualification on their own. If you take a step back and look at the top athletes in snowboarding you will see that the vast majority of us do not attend FIS events. The reason for this is that we do not feel FIS events are up to par with the progression of our sport in terms of course design, venues, athlete support, prize money or athlete attendance.”

Most of all, I wanted Lewis to answer a simple question: Why is this decision good for snowboarding?

It’s fair to say that our interview didn’t exactly go well. Lewis, a journeyman ski racer turned high level FIS politician, had little difficulty batting my questions away. She dismissed Guldemond’s concerns with the words “Everybody is entitled to an opinion.” She appeared baffled when I asked her why the views of people such as Ross Palmer had been ignored. The main thing she did say—repeatedly—was that the decision had been made because “FIS doesn’t have a mandate to enter into an agreement with a commercial organization that is effectively competing with FIS National Associations.”

In a later e-mail, I attempted to explain to Lewis the perception such an opaque response creates among the snowboarding community: that repeatedly parroting this line basically suggests that FIS are deliberately and disingenuously focusing on this point to avoid having to address the other real issues at play. Issues Lewis herself acknowledged were discussed when the decision was made.

In that light, ‘FIS doesn’t have a mandate to enter into a commercial organization that is effectively competing with the National Associations’ is not an explanation in any way in touch with the nuances of this debate. It’s just a way of ignoring the questions we actually want answering: why FIS made this decision and why it is a good decision for snowboarding is the crux of the issue.

Naturally, Lewis didn’t respond to that. Instead, her e-mailed reply took exception to my “lack of interest in accepting any other positions” (rich talk from an organization that has just rejected the most progressive opportunity to solve competitive snowboarding’s problems there has ever been), and once again repeated the line from the original letter that “the collaboration between FIS and TTR needs to begin by building trust and understanding between the organizations”.

The most revealing thing about this whole encounter is the implicit arrogance…

The most revealing thing about this whole encounter is the implicit arrogance, whether it is brushing off the opinions of somebody like Guldemond, or the continual refusal to answer what is really an extremely straightforward question in simple terms. This perception of arrogance was another thing noted by Ross Palmer in the minutes of the meeting of the FIS Snowboard Committee back in October.

“FIS and the FIS Snowboard Committee are perceived as high and mighty and heavy handed… we are not leading by example. In fact, the perception is that we own the gold … so we make the rules. This is neither an effective or acceptable form of leadership. Consequently, in the court of public opinion, FIS snowboarding has and continues to take a beating. The public relations damage to our organization is measurable”.

Recent articles such as this one in the Economist suggest this is happening more quickly than Palmer could have anticipated. Interestingly, snowboarding isn’t the only arena in which FIS are accused of heavy-handedly instigating a needless controversy, as this blog by Olympic gold medal winning skier Ted Ligety makes clear.

In this light, their response to the TTR initiative just offers yet more evidence that this is an outdated, short-sighted organization incapable of recognizing a progressive opportunity when it is gift-wrapped and hand-delivered. This was an opportunity to create a new bridge of trust between the skiing and snowboarding camps and dramatically recast FIS as a dynamic, forward-thinking body. Back in Munich, Reto Lamm put it well:

“It happens in every sport. If you want to develop, you have to be open to new structures and models, rather than just protect the status quo for your own benefit.”

…at least we have confirmation of what we’ve suspected since the mid-90s. That every FIS decision, when it comes to snowboarding, is motivated by naked self-interest.

Instead, FIS did the the exact opposite. They widened the gap and refused to explain why. If, as Lewis said to me, they were aware of the wider issues, then at least we have confirmation of what we’ve suspected since the mid-90s. That every FIS decision, when it comes to snowboarding, is motivated by naked self-interest.

And these are the people now in charge of snowboarding on the biggest stage of all?

It may sound outlandish, but corruption does exist at the top of sport. Witness the recent downfall of IOC kingpin Joao Havelange. There was another high level sporting apparatchik who presumably scoffed at the idea that he or his organization was motivated by simple self interest. But the simple fact is that the actions of the FIS Council are projecting a similar impression to the outside world. Here’s Chas Guldemond again:

“It really makes you think: What’s behind all this? Why wouldn’t the FIS listen to the riders and the people who want what’s best for the sport? It’s not legitimate at all, and it’s doubly sad because snowboarders built slopestyle into an Olympics-worthy sport on our own.”

Until somebody from FIS transparently and openly addresses these concerns, that perception is going nowhere. The result? The gap will continue to widen, and the damage to our sport and their organization will continue.

“We don’t have our heads in the sand” Lewis replied when I asked her if she was aware of the disquiet the FIS decision had created. If that’s the case, which is it? Ignorance or arrogance? Neither are good enough. Snowboarding deserves better.