Shaking Hands With The Devil: Caught Up With WAS

The day that the IOC announced they’d be waiting a little while longer before deciding if slopestyle should become an Olympic sport seemed like a good day to speak to Chas Guldemond, Marko Grilc and Seppe Smits. Last month’s column decried the lack of input from the most powerful party of snowboarders out there: the guys that actually ride in the crowded calendar of slopestyle events.

Almost to the day, Guldemond and some of his co-riders (including Marko and Seppe) announced the formation of the powerful new We Are Snowboarding group. The first steps were taken at a meeting in Sapporo. “There were seven of us at that meeting” says Chas. “A great group of guys: high level riders with titles to their names. TTR winners, Air & Style. We discussed the idea of a rider’s union composed of competitive snowboarders who want a say in the sport.”

Those riders were Chas himself, Mark McMorris, Peetu Piiroinen, Sebastien Toutant, Seppe Smiths, Gjermund Braten and Sage Kotsenburg. As the name ‘We Are Snowboarding’ suggests, this was a determined attempt to put the riders themselves right at the heart of the debate. After all, if the riders themselves aren’t ‘snowboarding’ in this context, then who or what is? Sponsors? Contests? Organizers?

Since that first meeting in January, WAS has quickly come to be the dominant rider-led voice in the industry, with more riders jumping on board. “After Japan we had a huge meeting at the U.S. Open, with 50 of the best riders in the world. We then followed that up at Euro X Games, where every high level athlete showed up.”

As well as these meetings, WAS quickly launched a website that sought to clarify the movement’s aims. For Chas, it’s been an issue for a while. “For years it’s been getting to me, the fact that there are so many problems in our sport. Hearing from all the other athletes that they’re upset about it as well. It got me fired up and motivated to make a change.”

What don’t you like about the way events are run right now?
“It goes all the way from small to big. Riding in really shitty weather, to the way events are scheduled, to the prize payouts at the contests, to rider hospitality. There are many issues and I got fired up, talking to the other riders, and seeing where they stood. It was clear I wasn’t with the only one with these issues.”

Marko Grilc agrees that the pro snowboarding has evolved to the point that riders organizing themselves and speaking out was an inevitable and necessary development.

“I would say that riding has exploded to a level no-one expected, so if you want to do well at events you have to put a lot on the line. Often, we’re in a position where either the weather conditions, the course itself or the lack of practice makes us risk more than we feel comfortable with. The competition schedule also does not gives is a chance to rest or ride for ourselves during the season. These are just a few of the reasons why by the end of the season half of the people on tour have sustained some kind of injury.”

In pro snowboarding, where the most controversial statement from an athlete tends to be something along the lines of ‘I prefer riding rails to powder’, this is rabble-rousing stuff. But rhetoric aside, what are the group’s actual aims?

What are the group's actual aims?

At this point they can be boiled down to two key issues: that the movement is designed to ‘put the decision making in to the hands of the athletes that make the sport breath’, and that it will attempt to improve conditions for pro riders by dealing with the impenetrable thicket of snowboarding events that is increasingly obscuring the snowboarding calendar each winter.

But probably the biggest claim is that WAS will attempt nothing less that changing the current status quo of competitive snowboarding so that ‘…what was run by politics and the interests of big sponsors and TV will be the choice and decision of the snowboarders’. These are big, bold aims. After all, most events, like it or not, are funded by big sponsors and TV networks-not least the Olympics themselves. So what power will WAS have to actually make them a reality? On the website there’s talk about ‘returning control to the riders,’ how will this practically be achieved?

There's talk about 'returning control to the riders,' how will this practically be achieved?

“The fact that we’ve now got every top level rider in the world showing up to our meetings is powerful in itself. We also had a say at the recent Euro X Games, in which we used our voice to make some positive changes.”

At that event, bad weather and difficult course conditions caused consistent problems and rider unrest throughout the week. Matters came to a head on the Thursday morning of the event, which had been scheduled as slopestyle semi finals day. “The semi finals were due to be live on TV, but conditions were so terrible,” says Chas. “So the riders came together, we had a majority vote and in the end we chose not to ride.”

How did the organizers react to that?  They worked with us, and it ended up working the next day way better-the sun was out, everyone worked together. But the main thing is we had a voice, used it to postpone the event until the next day.”

As well as this type of short-term action, WAS are also working on longer-term goals. “We’re in the process of finding reps for each discipline, girls and guys, and with that we’re going to move forward. Whatever comes up, we’re going to strategize, get together, make decisions and influence change.”

For Marko, WAS can also have a subtler influence. “I think that people maybe misunderstood the point of WAS. It is not a hostile organization that will be showing their power at events. But it is the first time in history that us riders have really stepped together. I believe the biggest power we have is that WAS can confirm to organizations that all athletes will attend their events, which will give event organizers big marketing possibilities.”

As such, WAS have also been in contact with each of the major contest organizers to outline their goals. As the site says, ‘…between the TTR, FIS, Dew Tour, and Winter X Games, there have been 27 major snowboard contests scheduled between December 2010 and March 2011 at venues all across the world’, so it is presumably crucial to begin a dialogue with those groups as quickly as possible.

There have been 27 major snowboard contests scheduled between December 2010 and March 2011.

“Yeah, for sure” says Chas. “As I said, X Games worked with us. TTR have been on board right from the start. They helped us with the website, and have been asking us about formatting for the World Snowboarding Championships. We’re working with all of them right now to get everybody on board”.

How about Dew Tour and FIS?

“It doesn’t really matter at this point, we’re moving forward and we’re going to get this support. The fact is that none of these organizations have a choice. They need to work with us to better the sport. What benefits us will benefit them for sure.”

And what about the IOC, which is looming in the background of this debate?

“The union is very stoked on the possibility of slopestyle being part of the Olympics, and we have already sent our letter of recommendation to the IOC on how they should organize the qualifying process for the Olympics. That letter has gone out, but we haven’t had a response about it just yet.”

What about the most drastic action of all, like sanction? Or refusing to ride? Is this something you have considered?

“We don’t want to have to go to that point, we want to do these things diplomatically, but when it comes down to it we have to do what’s right for the riders and what’s right for the sport. The main objective is to develop a healthy competition schedule, where riders don’t have to choose between a crazy number of events and scheduling clashes. It has to be healthy for sport and rider, because that’s what brings out the best snowboarding and means the rider can be treated the way they deserve to be treated. Right now, with all the different tours and crazy schedules, these riders are being puppeted around with no time to rest and recover. It’s pretty hectic. We’d like to develop a healthy way of doing things.”

Finally, professional snowboarding has a coherent, articulate and organized voice. How that voice is used, and how successfully, looks likely to be the next important chapter in this story. As Seppe Smits says, “This season, I did 26 contests in total. I think it’s just too much. I also think snowboarding can improve in many ways, and with WAS we’re trying to make the best of snowboarding for the future.”

Marko agrees. “Myself, I am supporting it mostly because I want to see that things are getting more organized and the conditions get better for the upcoming generations of riders. Also, that snowboarding events get our input to make them come out on a higher level so that at the end snowboarding grows as a sport”.