The 2010 Winter Olympics halfpipe crowd. PHOTO: Nick Hamilton

The 2010 Winter Olympics halfpipe crowd. PHOTO: Nick Hamilton

In late June, the TTR (World Snowboard Tour) and FIS (International Ski Federation) announced that they would collaborate on the creation of a new Freestyle Snowboard Task Force. The Task Force will, among other aims, “focus on creating a short term and long-range strategy for competitive freestyle snowboarding.” It will be chaired by Jeremy Forster of US Snowboarding, and be composed of members of the snowboard community, including TTR President Reto Lamm, TTR Executive Board Member Maria McNulty, FIS Snowboard Race Director Uwe Beier, and FIS Assistant Race Director Roberto Moresi, as well as riders, national representatives, judges, and coaches. The immediate focus for the group will be to generate a proposal for the IOC that centers on developing a fair system for freestyle snowboard athletes to qualify for the Olympics that includes the best FIS World Cup events and the best TTR events. The task force will also be called on to identify a long-term vision (5-10 years) for a successful competitive freestyle snowboarding landscape.

I spoke to FIS Secretary General Sarah Lewis on the day of the Task Force announcement to ask her how the top level of FIS sees the issues at hand, especially how workable a common Olympic ranking including the different established snowboarding tours such as FIS, Dew Tour, and X Games might be. What I found really intriguing about our conversation were her comments on the nuts and bolts of calendar coordination. According to Lewis, for any event to be eligible for a future Olympic qualifying list, “…they will have to be registered by the relevant FIS national member association, and will have to conform to the existing rules to get that registration.” This would, Lewis continued, likely “…rule out invitational events, events with restricted participation, or any event that the ownership is held by any commercial groups. Basically, if you have any events that are different from FIS rules, it is not going to be possible”.

…”For any event to be eligible for a future Olympic qualifying list, “…they will have to be registered by the relevant FIS national member association, and will have to conform to the existing rules ..”

You don’t have to be head of any putative Task Force to realize that this likely rules out pretty much every existing snowboarding event (such as the X Games, Dew Tour, Arctic Challenge, and Nokia Air & Style), and also that it would basically leave the decision making to the FIS national associations—rather than the Task Force.

All of which begs the question: what is this Task Force actually going to be for? What power will it have? An even less generous interpretation is that, if the decision to include, say, a TTR event is to be made by a FIS committee (and not the collaborative Task Force) at the essential expense of a FIS event, this is extremely unlikely to happen. After all, I’m pretty sure no turkey ever willingly voted for Thanksgiving.

To find out more, and see if I actually had things right, I spoke to Jeremy Forster about the issue. Forster is head of US Snowboarding and chairman of this new Task Force. I asked him if my take on Sarah Lewis’s words were correct. Does it mean that many existing events will be ruled out before the Task Force has even begun its process?

“I’m not ready to discount the opportunity of this group just yet. For sure there will be standards and protocols that events will need to agree on for participation in this process. For example, ensuring each nation, at some level, has the ability to participate in qualifications. It is important to acknowledge that both TTR and FIS have best practices within their events, judging, criteria, rankings, etc. The Task Force will review all of these areas in making its recommendations while ensuring a fair, high level process.”

The key word here though is surely “recommendation.” What is clear is that the Task Force is a discussion group and an advisory board. Ultimately, the decision-making process here does not rest with the Task Force, as all decisions made by the organization have to be confirmed by the FIS Council. There are eighteen members of the FIS Council, including President Gian Franco Kasper and Secretary General Sarah Lewis. In this light, the interesting thing from a snowboarding perspective is what Sarah Lewis’s answers seem to reveal about the attitude of the top brass at FIS.

On one level, this is understandable. After all, the job of the FIS Council is not to consider just snowboarding, but each winter sport under their control. But this disconnect between the top and bottom of the sport has to be a worry for snowboarders sensing the possibility of a bloodless coup when it comes to making the crucial decision about slopestyle snowboarding’s now confirmed involvement in the 2014 Olympic Games. Indeed, at one point in our conversation, Sarah Lewis questioned whether I was even correct to suggest that this was even a problem at the ‘grass roots’ level in snowboarding.

Henning Anderson, CEO of the World Snowboarding Championships and one of the founders of the TTR, is certain there is. “I know for sure that at the grass roots level in FIS there is the same frustration. They organize events that no big names come to, and they see the same as we do. It’s understandable-the more you care, the more frustration you get. The thing is that the further away you get from the grass roots level, then the less frustration there is. For the top guys at FIS, snowboarding is not the first priority-it is presumably Alpine skiing, ski jumping, and cross country skiing. They don’t really seem to see the problem.”

Lewis’s words also beg the obvious question—have any other sports succeeded in attaining Olympic status on their own terms? Or is this process, based upon complete adherence to a top-down Olympic code, rather than a grass-roots investigation of what is best for the sport involved, a necessary part of the whole process? Equally, do any other Olympic qualifying events run under private ownership? What about other recent member of the Olympic family, like tennis, beach volleyball, or even ski biathlon?  Questions to be answered in a future blog, perhaps.

“Take it that everything is being done in an open and positive way, and in very good faith,” said Lewis at the end of our conversation. The establishment of a Task Force is a great start. How closely those at the top making the key decisions listen to those recommendations is the real crux of the issue.