Shaking Hands With The Devil: Why the IOC can no longer ignore the World Snowboard Tour part 1
By Matt Barr
A few months ago, I spoke to one of the members of the TTR inner circle. How, I wondered, did the organization intended to move forward now that the battle to control slopestyle qualification at the 2014 Sochi Olympic games had been lost?
"Well, we do not want to limit our raison d´etre to the Olympics. There is more to snowboarding than the Olympic Games. Our main focus remains to follow our own path and create undeniable realities that, in the end, the IOC cannot ignore if they want to represent snowboarding as it truly is."
"Undeniable realities." It's a fitting phrase given the events of the last month or so on both sides of the FIS/TTR divide. The biggest news from the FIS camp was the cancellation of the key Sochi 2014 slopestyle test event. The official reason given is that a lack of snow meant the slopestyle course couldn't be built in time or to the correct standard. Worrying stuff indeed a year ahead of the main event. As ex-TransWorld SNOWboarding Editor-In-Chief Annie Fast put it on Twitter, "I mean, did we learn nothing from the 20,000 cancelled Olympic halfpipe tickets, airlifted snow and hay bales of Vancouver 2010?"
Evidently not, and it does cast real doubt on the ability of FIS to put on a pinnacle slope event a year before the 2014 Olympics are due to go down. After all, this is an organization with very little experience of building something comparable with, say, the X Games slopestyle courses, where the highest level of contest slopestyle riding to date has gone down. It's no wonder snowboarding confidence in FIS is low.
Especially in the light of the lukewarm reception given to the FIS World Championships in Stoneham, with the grapevine humming with rumors that some of the riders were seriously unhappy with the state of the course and the way they were treated.
All of which was in stark contrast to what was being showcased at flagship TTR events at the same time.
The first of these was the Winter X Games in Aspen -- highly significant this year for two reasons. Firstly, because Shaun White, Mark McMorris, and Torstein Horgmo respectively won the halfpipe, slopestyle and big air events with some of the best snowboarding ever seen.
Secondly, because of the deal struck back in September 2012 between TTR and X Games organizers that meant X Games evens now counts towards the TTR-endorsed World Snowboard Tour rankings. As a way of marking this agreement, this was quite a show.
That was followed a week or so later by the 20th anniversary of the Billabong Air & Style in Innsbruck, an event that saw the great and good of snowboarding gather in the Tirolean capital to celebrate this flagship shred occasion with two wildly contrasting but stellar events.
A look at the level of riding at the 20th Anniversary Billabong Air & Style
The first, on the Friday, was the Burn Style Session, a throwback jam session over the famous Bergisel kicker featuring legends such as Jamie Lynn, Bryan Iguchi, Gig Ruff, Mike Basich, and Max Plotzender. As a spectacle, this was a hugely entertaining celebration of snowboarding's rich heritage over the last twenty years.
Saturday's main Air and Style contest itself, eventually won by Eric Willett, saw yet more ridiculously high level snowboarding thrown down by riders such as Mark McMorris, Seb Toots, Seppe Smits and Stale Sandbech. The world's best, in other words.
And now this week has seen the entire crew decamp to Laax, for the Burton European Open. The competitive highlight of this? Undoubtedly 14 year old Japanese ripper Ayumu Hirano and Arielle Gold's halfpipe victories, the perfect example of how TTR events are acting as a fast track for the world's best talent. A year ago, this pair won the Nokia Best Rookie award at the US Open. A year later, they're winning the actual Burton European Open.
Ayumu and Arielle’s runs at the 2013 BEO
You get the point: the contrast between the undeniable reality of top-level competitive snowboarding as demonstrated by this triumvirate of TTR-backed snowboarding occasions, and the shabby, underwhelming events unfolding at first Stoneham and then Sochi, is clear.
At the same time, events off the snow point to real signs of clear leadership and a concerted strategy at the highest levels of the snowboarding community.
As recently as a couple of years ago, the lack of consensus in snowboarding was a real concern. There really did seem to be no real game plan coming from snowboarding's top table. Indeed, many of the industry's most important figures -- from Jake Burton to Shaun White -- have so far been conspicuously silent on this most important of issues. True, we've had Terje Haakonsen ("snowboarding's conscience" as one Burton ad went so far to say) as de facto figurehead since he boycotted Nagano, with Chas Guldemond and the We Are Snowboarding guys picking up the baton over the last couple of years. But organized and defined leadership? Not so much.
Then, in February 2012, the TTR announced the launch of the universal World Snowboarding Points List (which will include results from all major snowboarding events -- including, cutely, all FIS events) to create one overall ranking list for freestyle snowboarding. This was soon followed by the announcement that the world snowboard tour would now be called -- well, the World Snowboard Tour.
Not, on the face of it, anything of much interest to a few contest organizers and pro riders. Yet the announcement made it clear that the TTR had been playing the long game all along.
"After FIS rejected the Joint Qualification Process we knew we had to move onto a new phase," Reto Lamm said when I interviewed him about this. "We had several talks and our solution is that we will forget about Sochi 2014, that we should pursue a bigger goal. Instead of trying to interact with a system that won't let us interact, we will grow our sport into an international federation that will be acknowledged by the IOC."
Other new developments soon followed: firstly, a Round Table event in LA in May 2012, at which snowboarding industry heavyweights gathered to discuss the issues and try and plot a way forward.
Then in September came the aforementioned X Games announcement, clearly a significant moment. For the first time, the World Snowboard Tour could genuinely claim to be the only snowboarding tour to feature each of the world's key freestyle events -- something that should surely be a prerequisite for any Olympic qualifying program, and which the rival FIS tour cannot claim while to hoping to retain a shred of credibility.
The inclusion of the FIS World Cup-affiliated USSA Grand Prix as WST events was also a canny move, and proved the ingenuity of making all FIS events count towards the WST as well. Simultaneously granting these events WST status gives more credence to that event series, and means that riders won't have to choose between either camp, relieving the pressure on riders in what is already set to be a packed calendar year.
The announcement also strengthened the claims of the World Snowboard Tour in another way -- geographically. Until now, the only major North American event to feature on the WST Tour had been the Burton US Open, making the old TTR a predominantly Euro affair. The inclusion of the Aspen X Games and USSA events redresses this balance, and should presumably make the tour that much more appealing for any previously ambivalent US pro shreds.
Slowly but surely then, the problems that have bedevilled competitive snowboarding for the last decade or so are being tackled -- on snowboarding’s terms. It's an increasingly confident strategy, a mixture of pragmatism and idealism that is a long-term game but based around -- that phrase again -- the undeniable competitive realities of our sport. Rather than the artificial, politically-inspired construct that the FIS/IOC version of slopestyle snowboarding seems to be.
Read part two on the possibility of big air in the Olympics and what the TTR still needs to do if they want to represent Olympic snowboarding: snowboarding.transworld.net/1000197521/photos/why-the-ioc-can-no-longer-ignore-the-world-snowboard-tour-part-2/