Shaking Hands With The Devil: Silent Voices

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.—Plato, The Republic

WWLD? Scotty Lago at the 2010 Olympics. PHOTO: Nick Hamilton

WWLD? Scotty Lago at the 2010 Olympics. PHOTO: Nick Hamilton

As the debate about slopestyle’s potential involvement in the 2014 Olympic Games gains speed, we’ve heard from almost all the interested parties: TTR, Dew Tour, FIS-hell, even IOC, after Gerhard Heiberg’s recent attendance at the Arctic Challenge in Oslo. But there is still one group, the most important of all, that we have really yet to hear from. And that’s the riders themselves.

Why is this important? Firstly, because almost every opinion that has been uttered about this issue has purported to have the interests of the riders themselves at heart. Secondly, there is one sure-fire way of ensuring that the FIS slopestyle doesn’t get off the ground, and that is a rider boycott of FIS-run events. It’s an obvious point that plenty of below-the-line commentators have pointed out on the last few blogs.

“If a large group of the best slope riders in the world refuse to comply with IOC/FIS, then maybe snowboarders can gain control of their own sport. It’s going to be up to the riders and to rider-run organizations like TTR to take the initiative” commented reader “Murdoch”. “Def” also commented on the piece, saying, “Part of the problem is the riders themselves (and the sponsors behind them, I reckon). If all the top riders decided to compete on one tour, say the TTR, the IOC wouldn’t have much choice to take that one tour into account. Jesus Christ, it can’t be that hard, can it?”

You would think not. But the lone voice of rider-driven dissent is still that of Terje Haakonsen, who at times seems to have been single-handedly keeping this issue in the headlines.

Haakonsen’s latest headline-garnering act took place at the recent Arctic Challenge event in Oslo, when he unveiled The Snowboarding 180 Olympic Charter. It was an attempt to put the interests of pro snowboarders at the center of the debate by stating that “All snowboard events and organizations throughout the world must listen to the driving force of our sport: the athletes.”

“So far, the silence from the professional snowboarding community has been deafening.”

It’s a great initiative and a succinct outline of the goals of the snowboarding community. But for it to be truly effective, the riders themselves need to speak out. So far, the silence from the professional snowboarding community has been deafening.

And the problem isn’t just confined to the riders either. Other key industry figures seem reluctant to air their views—even when they agree with the argument. In the course of researching this blog, I spoke to the organizer of one of the most important events in the snowboarding calendar, in an effort to find out his views. He agreed to speak as long as his comments remained strictly off the record, for fear of upsetting his relationship with both FIS and the IOC.

He agreed that the present position was unsustainable and that the probable outcome, should the status quo remain, was that “… TTR will struggle. Sad, as it is here that we see most of the innovation within snowboarding. FIS will have a very slow start in the slopestyle arena, and will only present second level riders apart from during Olympic qualifications every fourth year.”

“Of course, the idea of a boycott of FIS slopestyle events is too severe at this stage and would likely do more harm than good…”

Of course, the idea of a boycott of FIS slopestyle events is too severe at this stage and would likely do more harm than good-Heiberg’s recent comments in an interview with ESPN’s Melissa Larsen suggest such direct action would go down particularly badly with the IOC. But the point remains that the riders themselves do have the power to influence events.

What, for example, of Shaun White, perhaps the one pro snowboarder with the clout and influence with both FIS and the IOC to make a positive, real difference? In an effort to include Shaun’s voice in this debate, I made an effort to speak to him about the issue. I was soon told by his people that, “…unfortunately, we aren’t going to be able to have Shaun participate.”

Still, there are some riders out there prepared to offer an opinion when asked. Seppe Smits is in a particularly unique position to comment, having won the FIS slopestyle event in La Molina recently and taken second spot at the recent Nike 6.0 Air & Style, a 6 star rated TTR event.

Seppe is exactly the type of rider that will be affected if there is no change to the current situation, somebody who will be forced to choose between different events in any hypothetical Olympic slopestyle qualification year. Indeed, it is something he already routinely does. So why did he decide to ride the La Molina event, rather than, say, the Dew Tour event held on the same weekend?

“I’m part of the Belgian snowboard team and we get financial support from the government. And for that support we have to get good results. And since FIS is the only official snowboarding association for the IOC, they only pay attention to those contests and not to TTR or Dew Tour events. That’s pretty much the reason why I ride FIS.”

Like almost everyone else involved in professional snowboarding, Seppe agrees that slopestyle is ready for inclusion in the Olympic Games, but fears that if FIS are given responsibility by default, it is unlikely to reap its full potential.

“I think slopestyle is totally ready for the Olympics, but if FIS organizes it all by itself I don’t think it could have its full potential. If FIS, TTR, and all other organizations would work together a bit they could make it the biggest contest of the year with the best riders and the highest level of riding.”

Silvia Mittermüller is another rider to have poked her head above the parapet and put some opinions out there. She’s another snowboarder already making choices about which events to attend, and has this winter taken part in the FIS slopestyle event at La Molina, as well as the recent Arctic Challenge in Oslo

Silvia’s experience in La Molina was mixed, although she is quick to point out that this is due to bad luck more than anything else. “I just feel that it was the unluckiest combination of bad factors in a single event in a long time. All of the components that made the FIS World Champs have happened before in other comps and they still worked. But it felt that in this event, all the bad factors came together at once and that’s why in the end it felt overall pretty bad. We had no speed, wind, shitty jumps, a bad slope, weird vibes, interesting judging, awkward jib features, constant changes of plan due to crazy weather and so on….”

Like Seppe Smits, her decision to ride at La Molina was largely influenced by the involvement of her national federation. “Why did I decide to enter the FIS event? Honestly? Because the German Federation offered to pay my flight and accommodation, because I had never snowboarded in Spain and because it was a good opportunity to work with non snowboard specific media in Germany. Those guys still don’t get what TTR is. The main thing was that the Federation paid my trip though. If they hadn’t paid my trip, I would have not spent a cent to go to a FIS comp. They knew that, which is why they did it. And that’s why I tried to ride the course, even though it felt really wrong, because I felt guilty if I didn’t try, since they paid my trip. So I tried and I crashed, almost broke my back and didn’t even end up doing the main event.”

As somebody with experience of pretty much every slopestyle event in the snowboarding calendar, be it Canadian Open, Arctic Challenge and now FIS slopestyle worlds, Silvia is pretty clear what the best solution for the riders would be.

Unless everybody involved in pro snowboarding-and yes, that means the riders as well-makes an effort to effect positive change, it will only get worse.

“I hope that the FIS guys get over their pride and dare to learn from TTR and other real snowboard events what they had to learn within many years: how to build good courses, what judging makes sense. I hope there will be communication between FIS and TTR to schedule events as good as possible and I hope that FIS humbly realizes they are the ones that have to learn, that they are respecting TTR like a child respects their teacher teaching them how to count to ten. Maybe in a perfect world it would work out to do Olympic qualifying through TTR and then every four years I think we could afford to give the FIS guys a week in our season to do the Olympics. I think all good snowboarders would try to go there with that in place. Everybody.”

The testimony of riders like Seppe and Silvia is important because it lifts the lid on the reality of life for pro snowboarders on the circuit, and the choices that snowboarding politics-like it or not-already forces them to make. Even this season, the situation is evidently far from perfect. But unless everybody involved in pro snowboarding-and yes, that means the riders as well-makes an effort to effect positive change, it will only get worse.

“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber”. Plato, a dead Greek guy, wrote those words over 2,000 years. Yet they remain truthful today in the unlikeliest of arenas. Even snowboarding.