The truly frustrating thing about the way the Olympic slopestyle qualification debacle has unfolded over the last eighteen months is that we really can’t say we weren’t warned. After all, this entire thing has already been played out once before, when halfpipe and slalom snowboarding were introduced into the 1998 Nagano Games. At least that time, we had naivety and disorganization as an excuse.
This time around, we don’t even have that. Since the Vancouver halfpipe final snagged some of NBC’s highest 2010 viewing figures, certain far-sighted snowboarders have been warning that another hostile takeover was on the cards. The recent controversy about tennis underlined once more how fundamentally ridiculous it is that a ski federation looks set to control the way snowboarding is represented and organized on the biggest sporting platform on the planet.
Can you imagine the same thing happening in tennis when that sport became part of the Olympic family? Imagine the same scenario: that the decision is made to fast-track tennis into the next Olympics. Then imagine that an organizing body that previously had absolutely nothing to do with the sport—say, the people that organize badminton—decide that they’re going to run the qualification process. Why not? They both swing racquet things at moving objects, right? Then let’s imagine for one insane minute that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) go along with this.
Imagine that next, rather than listen to the people that have been successfully organizing tennis competitions for years, the badminton guys decide to make a few tweaks to the way tennis is played, just for the Olympics. Maybe they decide to insist on a certain number of backhand strokes per rally. Or maybe they insist on the game being played on a court that’s just a couple of feet too small, meaning all the top tennis pros have to subtly adjust their game in order to take part.
Then the badminton guys decide to ignore every existing competition out there and create a new tour all their own that everyone has to take part in whether they like it or not. What, it might upset the balance of events that has existed for years and place impossible organizational and physical challenges on the athletes? Ah well.
It may sound ridiculous, but this is exactly the situation that competitive snowboarding finds itself in right now, as the recent announcement that the Olympic slopestyle snowboarding events in 2014 Sochi will follow the same International Ski Federation (FIS) qualifying guidelines surely indicates.
At the end of August, the IOC apparently approved the qualification process for the 2014 Games in Sochi as submitted by FIS.
Let’s recap what that announcement from earlier in the month signifies. At the end of August, the IOC apparently approved the qualification process for the 2014 Games in Sochi as submitted by FIS. Crucially, this process will be, as writer Melissa Larsen put it in a recent article, “virtually identical to the one in place for 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.” Melissa further pointed out that this indicated that, “the FIS executive committee chose to disregard the work of a joint Task Force established in May…to address the qualification processes for snowboarding.”
The Task Force, comprising key players from both FIS and the snowboarding community, had planned to present their findings at FIS meetings in October. But the decision by the FIS Council to submit their qualification proposal in August means that any findings they present will be largely irrelevant when it comes to the 2014 debate.
So is it game over? To find out, I spoke to Reto Lamm, President of the TTR World Snowboard Tour. Reto is currently involved in what he calls an “information triangle” between the TTR, FIS, and the IOC. In other words, prolonged, delicate negotiations in an attempt to resolve the impasse.
The situation right now is that FIS do have control of the qualification. FIS is empowered by the IOC, and we have to deal with that. Is there anything we can do about it? I believe there is.
For Reto, these talks represent something of a final throw of the dice for the snowboarding community. But he is still hopeful a compromise can be reached. “The situation right now is that FIS do have control of the qualification. FIS is empowered by the IOC, and we have to deal with that. Is there anything we can do about it? I believe there is.”
According to Reto, “…the IOC would be okay with TTR’s involvement in qualifications as long as we arrange ourselves with FIS.” To try and make this happen, Reto and the TTR are, within the next few weeks, making a clear proposal to FIS that puts forward the TTR case as agreed between the board and partner events. The idea is to put forward a certain number of TTR events that can eventually form a joint TTR/FIS tour that will decide future Olympic qualification processes. The events could include, says Reto, “…the Grand Prix in the US, the Burton Opens, maybe the Arctic Challenge- basically all events that run halfpipe or slopestyle and are not invitational only. There are so many events. That’s also a challenge. In general, the events have to agree to be on the list as an Olympic qualifier.”
And what happens if FIS decide not to join this compromise effort?
Reto: “We will explain that we tried all we could and failed. If FIS rejects us [TTR], and if they say no, then basically we are not accepted within the Olympic movement. We’ve been working on this for a while, and at some point we may have to say this is not going to be possible unless the IOC gets involved.”
Does FIS want to take part in this process?
Reto: “They have concerns about certain aspects of TTR events, but I told them we would have no problem finding a solution to these problems.”
These “concerns” form the crux of the entire debate (and to more cynical members of the snowboarding community, have given FIS an easy list of excuses to hide behind), and they are many. The eventual qualification process is one. Others are judging, the differing “open” status of many snowboarding events, commercial compatibility and-the big one for everybody—a calamitously crowded calendar should a future FIS slopestyle tour (which does not currently exist) clash with existing TTR events.
For Reto, a compromise between all parties on these issues is the only way forward—”The only thing we can do right now is use the diplomatic movement to try and get our view across. If we can show some involvement, and represent our sport as it actually is, then that could be a chance to help change things. The task on one level is to find solutions and make sure the IOC understands our process. That’s why I think the Task Force is a great thing, as it has a huge amount of collective intelligence that can get together and put forward views and different scenarios. In this sense it is very important. But the more the proposals seem transparent and doable and serious, the more it will have an influence.”
Fundamentally, you can’t use the cycling federation to bring skateboarding into the Games, and you can’t use skiing for snowboarding.
Reto also makes the very valid point that this situation is also an opportunity for FIS and the IOC, he says, “I believe it would be beneficial to everyone, not just for the TTR. It will be good for the IOC and the FIS as well. Personally, I think the IOC should accept and use sports like ours to rejuvenate the Games. And they have to deal with the reality of these sports. Fundamentally, you can’t use the cycling federation to bring skateboarding into the Games, and you can’t use skiing for snowboarding. They’re different sports, with different cultures. We all started snowboarding because we did not want to ski and because we wanted to experience something else than skiing. We built a sport with a relevant youth culture, which has nothing to do with skiing. We respect skiers who ski. We just feel like we should play a role in our own sport when it is presented at the Olympics. And the IOC should recognize and implement this, to improve their own offering. And this would improve things for everybody.”
So at this point, the question is a simple one: how will FIS respond to this olive branch being proffered by the TTR? Will the organization take the long view, and accept that this is a real problem that isn’t going away? Or will short-termism be the path taken?
Reto says, “If FIS won’t find a solution, it will take another four years. Or another eight years. And the problems will still be in the room. There are reasons why FIS needs to deal with this now, while we have the opportunity. It’s not going to go away.”
Eight more years of this debate? Let’s hope that FIS respond in the same spirit of cooperation. For everybody’s sanity.