You Laugh, Bob Costas, but Freeskiing Is the Future of Skiing

The newly minted Olympic sport may look and seem silly to first-time viewers, but more and more skiers are getting serious about it.
Felipe Dana / AP

After months of speculation and skepticism, halfpipe skiing and slopestyle skiing are making their Olympic debut this week in Sochi. But it seems not everyone is ready for it.

On a January 6 appearance on The Today Show, Bob Costas was asked his opinion about slopestyle, a sport in which skiers and snowboarders perform a variety of tricks on rails and jumps. “I think the president of the IOC should be Johnny Knoxville, because basically, this stuff is just Jackass-worthy stuff that they invented and called Olympic sports,” Costas said, laughing.

While older men in suits questioning progress is nothing new, the ski industry never expected the host of NBC’s Olympic coverage to publicly disparage the sport. Skiers and fans were justifiably offended.

"Comments like that show his underlying feelings toward the event, and it just puts out a bad message," top slopestyle skier Tom Wallisch told ESPN.com. "If people like Costas continue to talk about the sport like that, it's going to make slopestyle look like a junk show, which it isn't. It's a sport that has more followers and fans than a lot of other Olympic sports. And this is our time to show that to the world."

Sixteen years ago, in Nagano, the Olympics added halfpipe snowboarding to the program. It’s now one of the Games' most popular events. Skiers claim their version is even more dynamic for audiences. Skiers boost higher out of the halfpipe than snowboarders and can execute a wider variety of tricks. And while the average fan of moguls or aerials would struggle to tell the difference between the top five competitors, even first-time spectators will witness halfpipe and slopestyle runs that look drastically different from one another.

In ski halfpipe, a total of 30 men and 24 women will ski down a 700-foot-long pipe with 22-foot-high walls and will be scored on overall impression based on technical execution, amplitude, variety, use of the pipe and difficulty. In slopestyle skiing, skiers are judged on execution, style, difficulty, variety and progression as they hit a variety of jumps and rail features. No longer fringe sports, the two disciplines draw mainstream sponsorships and a huge fan base. Competitions span the globe and a governing body, the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP), ranks athletes and sanctions a world tour.

But as foreign as many of the maneuvers will appear to mainstream TV audiences, slopestyle skiing may be one of most relatable Olympic sports. In other words, it’s a sport many everyday, non-elite skiers could try on their own: Most every ski resort has a terrain park with variations of the jumps Olympic slopestyle skiers will be hitting.

What you won’t find at your local ski hill is the kind of jumps aerialists boost off off, or moguls perfectly shaped like those used in competition. And not many recreational skiers know what it’s like to bash slalom gates in a racecourse.

The Olympics need younger viewers, and their best bet at capturing them is through action sports that embrace the evolution of skiing and snowboarding. Decades ago, snowboarders inspired by skateboarders, created terrain parks and halfpipes. In the late ’90s, skiers started making their way into the parks—grabbing their skis in the air, spinning and boosting high out of the halfpipe. Skiing was no longer limited to people living in ski towns. Small resorts in places like the Midwest, with little to offer in the way of vertical feet, could build a terrain park and see an influx of young skiers.

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Tess Weaver Strokes is a freelance writer based in Aspen, Colorado. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, ESPN, and Freeskier.

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