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.
“As freeskiing became a growing category, it led to new product changes, like skis with cool art and graphics and freeski specific brands,” says Josh Loubek, an Olympic judge and the director of judging for the AFP. “There was a new energy and excitement. Retailers, resorts, and companies started to embrace the new sport and saw a huge following. The Olympics are just another natural step for a sport that has boomed in population, skill and audience.”
Freeskiing’s athletes have also injected energy into what could have been considered a stagnant sport. Skiers like JP Auclair, Shane McConkey, Tanner Hall, Candide Thovex, and Sarah Burke were famous for their personalities as much as for their skiing and developed ski hero status. “They paved the path for more competitions, more brands and more sponsors, which attracted more people to the sport,” says Loubek. These freeskiers asked for new skis called twin tips that would allow them to land and ski backwards. Last season, twin-tip ski sales in the U.S. were up 2 percent and accounted for $55 million of the $2.6 billion spent on snowsports gear, according to the Snowsports Industries of America.
“Park skiing did save the ski industry, to a certain degree,” says freeskiing pioneer Mike Douglas. “It stopped the flood of skiers leaving to pick up snowboards and it's helped change the image of the entire sport. With or without the Olympics, I don't think skiing is any longer viewed as just a sport for old rich people in sweaters, and that's a good thing.”
“There are no mandates or certain judging formulas that athletes have to abide by,” say Loubek. “It’s high-energy, acrobatic, stylish, and artistic.”
And contrary to Costas’s comment, the sport requires an obvious athleticism.
“These are some of the most athletic achievements at the Olympics,” says Loubek. “When you see these athletes perform spinning tricks with unique grabs and double or triple flips while landing backwards or spinning both natural or unnatural directions, it won't take long for the audience to agree that these athletes are seriously gifted and professionally trained.”
Nineteen-year-old American slopestyle skier Nick Goepper, a medal favorite in Sochi, told ESPN.com he’s glad Costas made the remark. "Now it should draw interest and make slopestyle one of the most entertaining sports in the Olympics.”