It may be the youngest of the three main board sports, but snowboarding probably faces the biggest and most complicated challenges of all.
This is thanks entirely to the fact that the sport was fast-tracked into the Olympics back in the mid-1990s, thus leapfrogging skateboarding and surfing in the public consciousness. Suddenly snowboarding was on the biggest stage of all, and the recriminations from that badly handled process are still being felt to this day.
Up until that point, competitive snowboarding had grown organically, and had been run by the International Snowboarding Federation. Naturally, snowboarders thought control of that first Olympic halfpipe qualification process would be awarded to this body. Instead, the IOC handed control of the qualification process to FIS, the International Ski Federation, and a body that had had no involvement whatsoever in running competitive snowboarding. The two parties aren't quite at the mortal enemy stage any more, but there's still some rancor, as we'll see.
The consequences were immediate and not just acronyms that would confuse the hell out of snowboarders for the next 15 years. The ISF—its very reason to exist suddenly removed—quickly folded. Terje Haakonsen—the expected winner of the halfpipe gold—boycotted the 1998 Nagano Games in protest. When those headlines faded, the event went full-steam ahead, with Swiss rider Gian Simmen winning the first halfpipe gold medal. Unsurprisingly, the lure of Olympic gold meant scruples were quickly forgotten, though Haakonsen's gesture has grown ever more legendary in the intervening years.
After those first Olympics, the core snowboard scene moved to reclaim control of competitive snowboarding, establishing a new contest series called the Ticket to Ride (founded in part by Haakonsen) that sought to link existing, organic events into one series that it was felt reflected the reality of snowboarding for a competitive audience more accurately.
Since then, something of an uneasy truce has developed, with most of the world's top riders following the TTR tour until Olympic qualifying years, when everybody rides the FIS tour in an attempt to gain Olympic qualification.
Vancouver 2010 – Fast Track 2.0
It was an uneasy, unsatisfactory status quo that was never going to last. This time, it was broken in the aftermath of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. That event gave snowboarding its biggest ever audience, handed broadcaster NBC some of its biggest 2010 viewing figures, and made a superstar of a certain red-headed pipe sensation. Suddenly, it became clear that there was a huge appetite in the mainstream sporting world for competitive snowboarding.
It was enough to kickstart the next chapter of the story, which saw the new TV-friendly discipline of slopestyle snowboarding fast-tracked into the 2014 Sochi Games. Once again, FIS—this time with no history of organizing slopestyle events—was awarded control of the qualification process by the IOC and the snowboarding establishment—spearheaded by the TTR—were up in arms. Particularly when FIS recently rejected TTR's Joint Olympic Qualification proposal, which sought to combine events into one calendar, thus easing the burden on riders.
On paper, it looked like an attractive olive branch, but to the disappointment of almost everybody, FIS neglected to accept the offer. Why? Because when it all boils down to basics, the Olympics out-muscle everyone. Unless the TTR can come up with some genuine fire-power, FIS can, and evidently will, swat them away as a mere nuisance.
Yet again, snowboarding has suddenly been asked to deal with the sensitive issues that usually unfold in a sporting culture over many years—namely, how to marry the niche and mainstream—under the harshest possible spotlight. And once again, the result has resembled a land grab.
How it'll all play out is anyone's guess. The land grab is far from over, and until the main issues are resolved, expect more acronym-heavy debates to spill out on blog posts, forums, and newspapers in the run up to Sochi 2014. So what are the main issues left to resolve?
1. Contest Format and Judging
A comparison between snowboarding and boxing is imperfect, but it illustrates one crucial challenge competitive snowboarding faces: format. Point a camera at a boxing ring, and it's fair to say that someone who has never seen the sport before could understand the end goal, and then get caught up in the drama and sporting theatre. That's not quite the case with action sports, the intricacies of which can take years to understand and appreciate. Hell, even seasoned observers get the trick names wrong.
Getting the format and judging right is one of the major obstacles action sports face before they can achieve true mainstream acceptance. Witness the halfpipe at the last Winter Olympics. Much of the media hype around that event centred around personalities, and pundits repeatedly telling the uninitiated how hard and dangerous tricks like double corks are. But as a means of maintaining interest in the sport, is it not particularly sustainable. Simplification or breaking down the barriers of understanding is going to be key.
Henning Anderson and his team at The Arctic Challenge and the forthcoming World Snowboarding Championships have attempted to deal with this issue by creating a new judging system. "It is called Snowboarding Livescoring System (SLS) and it is taking the viewers understanding of the sport to totally new levels."
Settling on a judging system shared by all events, that the riders themselves identify with and that seeks to uncover the mysteries of top-end snowboarding for a mainstream audience, is going to be a crucial development if ordinary viewers are ever going to turn on their TVs in large numbers.
2. One Tour
Perhaps the biggest problem of all is the sheer number of tours and events that currently exist in snowboarding. As well as the FIS-organized tour, which riders are required to participate in if they hope to achieve Olympic qualification, there is the aforementioned TTR. Then there are commercially driven series of events such as the Burton Global Open Series, the X Games and the Dew Tour. Even more confusingly, some of these count towards the overall TTR Championship, while others don't. The upshot is that there is no one clear winner (or World Champion, if you like) at the end of each year of competition.
It's a situation that has come about mainly because of the vacuum caused by the implosion of the ISF all those years ago, but today it has a domino effect across the board. Henning Anderson feels that this puts off potential broadcast partners. "Until we have one tour where all the best riders attend the top events, like tennis and golf, we will sadly never go any further. No broadcaster will pay top money if they can't rely on one tour with all the best riders guaranteed."
In that light, all industry eyes were on Anderson's event, the World Snowboarding Championships in Oslo, last month. As the name suggests, the WSC aims to crown one World Champion at the end of the season and hopes to show how top-level snowboarding events "should" be run. No pressure there.
Whatever your take on the significance of the event's results, change is certainly needed. Chris Moran, ex-editor of Whitelines snowboarding magazine and current director of the ACM Consultancy Group, puts it this way: "Viewers need a narrative. They need to understand there's only one winner, or one World Champion, and they need to have a reason to care about it. TV needs drama and pantomime that people can understand. Surfing has managed it, and not that long ago most surf contests were virtually unwatchable."
3. TV Production
Like it or not, TV is the main influencer of how sports are perceived. Rumors have been swirling for months that slopestyle was fast-tracked into Sochi 2014 at the behest of NBC, the TV network holding the North American rights to the Winter Olympics. If the rumors are true, it's hard to fault their reasoning: slopestyle looks great on TV, a fact which goes some way to explaining the success of the X-Games, whose wire-mounted camera shots and crowd-lined finish area has made slopestyle its blue ribbon event since 1997.
For Ed Leigh, ex-pro snowboarder, presenter of flagship BBC show Ski Sunday, and thus a man uniquely positioned to have an informed take on this, the problem with grassroots snowboarding events is that they've often seen TV as an additional spectator; and not as an integral part of the event organization.
"There is an endemic problem within snowboard event TV products and while Air and Style, X Games, and the US Open provide very high quality coverage, the general standard is still very low. This for me is the biggest obstacle the TTR faces going toe to toe with the FIS or away from that battle, just gaining the confidence of high quality mainstream broadcasters.
"Throughout the winter I have to attend FIS alpine ski events for Ski Sunday, I know exactly how slick their product is and how quickly it is delivered and with a minimum of stress. Their budgets allow them huge infrastructure that is capable of live global broadcast and they have the experience that has gained them the trust of the rights holders".
Viewed through this prism, the IOC's preference for working with FIS on snowboarding makes some sense. FIS might not have been running snowboarding contests very long, but they have certainly been running large scale, TV-friendly competitions on snow for a very long time indeed. The challenge for any potential rivals, is to replicate this level of production—and not just at a handful of events.
4. Trick Progression
The evolution of snowboarding tricks into ever more mind-boggling maneuvers of danger and complexity has been the key narrative of pro snowboarding in recent years. As we've seen, Shaun White's mastery of the double cork and "Tomahawk" was one of the main stories to come out of Vancouver, and there have been high profile casualties as riders have struggled to keep up with an ever-spiralling rate of progression.
But for many core snowboarders, something defining and ineffable—style—is being lost during this process. Nike European Snow Team Manager Jon Weaver puts it well. "Eighty percent of riders are morphing into the same snowboarder, trying their damndest to land a backside 1080 double cork. It seems that in the last couple of years a lot of contests have forgotten about style. Style has always been a huge part of snowboarding, and at the moment that key element is being forgotten slowly. We aren't figure skaters but unless something is done to encourage individual style, especially in big air [events], we will be soon enough."
Incorporating something as subjective as style into a judging process is essential then if boardsports are to avoid falling into the figure-skating trap of rewarding rotations over technique. If we fail, something tangible will indeed be lost in the process.
Perhaps the most difficult issue of all, and one summed up by a simple question: why should ordinary snowboarders care about any of this? It's a question even the most engaged snowboarders struggle to answer.
For Jeremy Sladen, head buyer at influential UK snowboard chain the Snowboard Asylum, the answer is to forget this debate altogether and concentrate on something even more fundamental.
"Do action sports need mainstream recognition? I personally don't think they do. We as a sport and an industry have become obsessed with the 'FIS/TTR/who rules snowboarding?' debate and have lost focus of the real joy of snowboarding and telling that story to people to encourage growth. The only way we can grow our sport and take it back from the FIS is to go back to basics and tell the story of how amazing snowboarding is."
A valid point maybe, but the fact remains that whoever has "control" of this process controls the perception that future generations of board riders have of the sport. For Reto Lamm, head of the TTR, and the man spearheading the Joint Olympic Qualification, it is a fundamental issue.
"Regular snowboarders probably shouldn't care. After all, this has nothing to do with improving the fun of the actual snowboarding experience. But I think the riders that want to compete should care, and stand behind snowboarding as they understand it. Together, we all built this sport. It's our sport. And we saw how it was taken away from us, and now it is happening again. If we stand up for what we believe in, people watching snowboarding competitions will enjoy a more authentic snowboarding competition if we're able to have a say in this qualification. They will see snowboarding in a pure way."
Given the complexity of this issue, it is perhaps unsurprising that many snowboarders have reactedthe whole thing by bowing out of the debate and, as Sladen puts it, "focussing on the real joy of snowboarding" instead.
It might be understandable, but it's an attitude that basically leaves the way open for the next stage of the silent takeover of snowboarding to be completed with almost no opposition, which is really the answer to the 'why is this important?' question. Ed Leigh puts it well: "Feel free to take a head in the sand approach, but if you do you forego the right to complain or ever become cynical about how the sport you love has been poisoned and how great it used to be in the good old days. Because essentially, by taking that stance, you are complicit in its demise."
And there's a bigger picture here worth considering as well. Why should the ski industry suddenly reap the benefits of snowboarding's increased profile and popularity? As Zack Dalton, Global Sports Marketing Manager for Oakley, puts it, "…The future of competitive snowboarding is essential to the growth of snowboarding. Having the Olympics as an outlet to showcase our sport lets us speak to the largest audience we could ever ask for, which is great for the growth of the sport, athletes, and brands involved."
And what kind of dangerous precedent is being set in the process? Snowboarding may be the youngest of the three main board sports but it's no exaggeration to say that how these issues are played out now will set the template for how these issues are played out in all our sports. In fact, high level discussions have already taken place between the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the International Skateboarding Federation about the inclusion of skateboarding in a future Olympic Games, with both Pat McQuaid from the UCI and Gary Mead from the ISF admitting that they're keen to avoid the mistakes made by FIS when it came to handling snowboarding. "Of course we're aware of it" says Mead. "I believe skateboarding could be an Olympic sport in the future, and we're talking now to make sure we don't have a repetition of this whole scenario".
Skateboarders talking to cyclists to help safeguard their sport? It sounds crazy—but the recent history of snowboarding proves that such pragmatic precautions are all too necessary if we want to have a say in how our sports make that niche to mainstream leap.