Two decades ago—a time span that, relative to Olympic history, seems equivalent to a sneeze—athletes in X Games-style sports were newcomers to the Olympic scene, invited for their younger-generation appeal but relegated to sideshow status by wary officials.
The embrace was even colder outside the Olympics. Snowboarders still were considered party crashers at some resorts, where skiers wanted to schuss slopes uncluttered by halfpipes, rails and the counterculture brigade they attracted.
“Snowboarding was looked at as the rebel sport,” says Shaun White, the red-haired owner of two Olympic golds in halfpipe snowboarding and plenty of mass-marketing magic. “It wasn’t fit to be on the mountain. We were kind of outcasts.”
Not anymore. At the upcoming Sochi Winter Games, skiers will take to the Olympic halfpipe for the first time and White will be in the klieg lights from Day 1.
The 2014 Olympics kick off the day before Friday’s opening ceremony. Among the three events with qualification rounds on Thursday is snowboard slopestyle, a new Olympic addition in which White planned to compete, though he withdrew to avoid the injury risk, per Nick Zaccardi of NBC.
White’s attempt to three-peat in halfpipe in Sochi is a dominant storyline for U.S. fans. And with a dearth of American favorites in figure skating and alpine skier Lindsey Vonn sidelined for Sochi, X Games-style sports, or so-called action sports, are perfectly positioned to claim the spotlight.
Consistently sharing prime time in the coming weeks with the figure skaters in sequins, the lugers in skinsuits, and the hockey players in helmets and pads will be the snowboarders and freestyle skiers in saggy pants.
“We’re going to have to maintain our coolness but not act immaturely,” says halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck, who at 17 is among the youngest U.S. Sochi Olympic team members.
With their numbers greater than ever, they will counter Olympic stodginess with gravity-defying stunts, a no-worries approach, broad social media reach (White alone has more than 1.2 million Twitter followers) and a lingo all their own.
“It’ll be super sick, actually, because, I don’t know, we’re just so much weirder,” says Sage Kotsenburg, 20, who joins the U.S. Olympic men’s snowboard slopestyle team. “We came from such a crazy background, and we’re not contained really.
“I think you’ll see a lot more fun and new people coming in and definitely a new audience to bring to the Olympics. Not to say that older people don’t like it, but it’s a new sport and people are super stoked on it.”
Fifteen of the 17 days of Sochi Olympic competition will include events in freestyle skiing and snowboarding.
Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC Olympics, calls White and his fellow snowboarders and freestyle skiers “very compelling figures.”
“They’re not just some robotic athlete just showing up and winning a gold medal,” he says. “They’ve got personality. They’ve got some spark. It’s great for the Olympics. It’s great for us.”
Action sports first gained a foothold with the X Games, an annual event created in the mid-1990s by ESPN for extreme sports.
The X Games “got us into the spotlight,” says White, who ruled both the Summer and Winter X Games with crossover talent in skateboarding and snowboarding. “It got us to the place where we were being recognized out in public. And the Olympics came in and took that and made it even bigger.”
The International Olympic Committee, striving to stay relevant to younger fans and athletes, began adding action sports to the Winter Olympics around the same time the X Games were building their visibility.
“IOC members were taking note that if kids are out snowboarding or skateboarding, doing these new sports, then you have to pay attention as a leader of the Olympic movement,” says Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympic medalist in women’s hockey who became an IOC member in 2010.
The IOC awarded medal status to moguls skiing for the 1992 Olympics, to aerials for the ’94 Games and to two snowboard events (halfpipe and parallel giant slalom) for 1998. Snowboard cross debuted in 2006; ski cross in 2010.
In halfpipe, snowboarders and skiers build speed in an icy, U-shaped ramp, then flip and spin through the air after taking off from the ramp’s high side walls. In slopestyle, they perform tricks on a series of rails and jumps laid out on a downhill course.
They are judged on elements such as amplitude (height) and style. Every year, the speeds grow faster, the amplitude greater, the tricks more astoundingly difficult.
“You’re going to see a camera in Sochi that’s going to go into the halfpipe with the skiers and the snowboarders,” Bell says. “You’re going to see more specialty cameras than ever before, and many of them really sing at some of these action sports.”
The scheduling hints at the drawing and staying power of action sports, and it amplifies a changeover that, despite the sometimes uneasy relationship between these sports and the Olympics, has taken less than a generation.
“It’s pretty amazing, considering how young our sport is, that we have integrated this much into the Olympics,” says two-time Olympic snowboarder Elena Hight.
The presence of action sports on the Sochi program surpasses figure skating (15 days of competition to 11), even though a new team event has been added to figure skating.
“It can’t just be about figure skating, figure skating, figure skating,” says Rob Prazmark, chief executive officer of 21 Marketing and a former IOC consultant. “It’s got to be about growing a broadcast audience. And what these sports do is grow the broadcast audience.”
Because U.S. Olympic broadcaster NBC packages the sports for its prime-time shows, quantifying the effect of action sports on Olympic viewership is difficult. The qualitative effects are easier to state.
“From a cultural standpoint, they’re great,” Bell says. “They’re sports that you see have a lot of youth interest in them. They’re very visual. They’re very athletic. They seem to play well with a pretty loose, interesting group of people who are really good at them.”
A Nielsen report released during the 2010 Winter Olympics showed the overall U.S. audience still skewing older. Data through Day 10 of those Games pegged Olympic prime-time ratings among teenagers at 57 percent lower than the national average for other national, prime-time broadcasts. Ratings among viewers ages 18-49 were 20 percent lower.
Yet the most-viewed NBC telecast of the 2010 Olympics, according to Nielsen, came on a day that both White and Vonn won gold medals.
“Clearly the younger audience today has many, many more choices of how they’re going to spend their leisure time than the previous generations,” says Michael Payne, the IOC’s marketing and broadcast rights director from 1983 to 2004. “Now you’ve got to make sure you’re speaking to them and engaging initially with sports that are interesting to them.”
Halfpipe snowboarder Kelly Clark says snowboarding has been so successful in the Olympics “because it’s relatable.”
“It truly is a sport that families are out there on the weekends enjoying together,” says Clark, 30, who will compete at her fourth Olympics in Sochi. “I’m not sure if every Winter Olympic sport is like that.”
Clark remembers repeatedly watching a VHS recording of the first Olympic snowboarding competition as a teenager in 1998.
“I definitely had one of those moments where I said, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do with my life,’” she says.
Clark won gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The U.S. men swept the halfpipe podium that year. For U.S. fans, at least, action sports had arrived on the Olympic stage, with an exclamation point.
“After our performance, we were no longer viewed as the outsiders,” Clark says. “People didn’t know what to expect, and then they were kind of like, ‘Well, I guess they’re awesome.’”
White rode that wave and pushed it to a much higher crest while winning Olympic gold in 2006 and 2010.
He crashed not only the staid Olympic culture but also pop culture. He has numerous sponsors and his own boys’ clothing line at Target. He regularly shares space with the likes of Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning on lists of the most powerful and most marketable athletes.
With his attempt to win halfpipe gold at three consecutive Winter Olympics, White will keep snowboarding in must-see territory for a third Games.
“There have been a few people, individually, throughout Olympic history that changed the destiny of a sport,” says Prazmark, listing Bob Beamon’s otherworldly long jump in the 1968 Olympics as an example. “I think history will look to Shaun White as being the one individual who may have changed the face of action sports and the Olympic agenda for a long, long time.”
The Sochi Olympic program represents the IOC’s most sweeping young-audience grab yet. In 2011, the IOC voted to add 12 new events in eight disciplines for 2014. More than half of them—men’s and women’s parallel slalom snowboard, men’s and women’s ski halfpipe, and men’s and women’s snowboard and ski slopestyle—are action sports.
“It’s going to be the most interesting and exciting thing for people to watch at the Olympics,” says U.S. Olympic slopestyle snowboarder Chas Guldemond, 26. “It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s creative. The stuff that we’re doing out there is really high-risk.”
Canada’s Sarah Burke, a ski halfpipe pioneer, died in a training accident in 2012. Top halfpipe snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury during a training run less than two months before the 2010 Olympics.
“You don’t have to know much to know we’re risking our lives out there, and fans love that,” says Louie Vito, who finished fifth in halfpipe snowboarding at the 2010 Games.
White’s newest halfpipe trick is a “frontside double cork 1440,” an upgrade from the “double McTwist 1260” he landed at the Vancouver Games four years ago. It adds a half twist inside two head-over-heels flips. Before withdrawing from slopestyle, he was trying to master a “triple cork 1440,” which Canadian competitor Mark McMorris has in his repertoire.
“Everyone has their own style and puts their own twist on things,” Kotsenburg says. “It’s not easy to judge, because it’s not like figure skating where there’s a nice, proper way to do everything.”
The subjective nature has caused plenty of tension over Olympic judging among action-sports athletes.
Moguls skier Jonny Moseley, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist, famously challenged the judging at the 2002 Games by unleashing a “Dinner Roll” in his Olympic run. The sideways spin defied a rule that restricted athletes to stunts in which their heads always were above their feet.
The judges placed Moseley fourth. But by the 2006 Games “off-axis” tricks such as the Dinner Roll were allowed.
The newest Olympic entrants inherited Moseley’s moxie.
“The way that we’ve come into the Olympics is, instead of trying to fit the Olympic mold, we’re kind of creating our own,” says Maddie Bowman, 20, the 2013 and 2014 X Games gold medalist in ski halfpipe and a member of the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. “We’re trying to stay exactly who we are, because that is a big deal to us.”
When North Face, which signed on as a sponsor of U.S. Freeskiing in 2011, set about designing the Sochi Olympic gear for the freeskiers, the sport’s culture figured prominently.
“They’re individuals,” Jasmin Ghaffarian, director of action sports products at North Face, says of freeskiers. “They work as a team, but they very much want to look cool. So that brings, definitely, a different edge to a uniform. You want to be distinguished and refined but also capture who these people are and what they would want to wear to win gold.”
North Face consulted the athletes, who told them they wanted saggy pants and longer jackets that weren’t too wide, Blunck says.
“They were able to make something that all of us are extremely stoked on,” he says.
Sewed into each Olympic freeskiing jacket is a star-shaped piece of material from a suit that a North Face alpine climbing athlete, Kris Erickson, wore to the top of Mount Everest.
“For us the highest peak as a brand has been putting someone safely, dry, warm, on the top of Everest,” Ghaffarian says. “This is another peak.”
The Winter Games undoubtedly are a summit for the sport of freeskiing. With freeskiers’ roots in rebellion and individualism, which directed them toward halfpipes and terrain parks while their peers were running gates on slalom courses, a culture clash with the tightly structured, tradition-bound Olympics seems inevitable.
“Half of the sport has embraced it and half of it hasn’t,” says Nick Goepper, a 19-year-old Olympic slopestyle skier who won X Games gold this year and last year. “There’s a lot of talk that we’re selling out and that we’re going against all of the values that we initially instilled when we started this sport two decades ago.”
When snowboarding was first added to the Olympic program in 1998, legendary Norwegian snowboarder Terje Haakonsen boycotted. A three-time world halfpipe champion at that point, he likened the IOC to a mafia and bucked especially against the IOC putting the international ski federation (FIS) in charge of organizing Olympic snowboarding.
In action-sport circles, FIS is still a four-letter word.
“It’s utterly ridiculous that the FIS has anything to do with snowboarding, since it’s a ski organization,” slopestyle skier Tom Wallisch says.
Another freeskier, Tanner Hall, is the Haakonsen of this generation. He has won three X Games gold medals in ski halfpipe and three others in ski slopestyle, yet he decided not to try for the Olympics.
Instead, like many other freeskiers and snowboarders, he’s spreading the sport’s nonconformist gospel through edits filmed in backcountry locations.
“He’s very hesitant and nervous about the sport being taken away from its roots and getting too corporate and too vanilla,” says Hall's agent, Tom Yaps. “Tanner likes where the sport was, and I do too, and a lot of fans do too.”
Yaps also sees the potential upside of Olympic inclusion, with the increased media attention bringing more fans and sponsors.
“That’s the hope, that all these guys get discovered through this,” Yaps says. “We’ll see if they really do.”
North Face's Ghaffarian says her company become involved in winter action sports because “we’re seeing the younger generation of skiers really gravitating toward slopestyle and halfpipe and these new sports that are emerging in the Olympics.”
She adds, “We’re really honored to be a part of that.”
Devin Logan, a 20-year-old freeskier who, like White, excels at both halfpipe and slopestyle, tells people she meets on airplanes that she does “what Shaun White does on skis.” Their typical next question, she says, is “Are you going to go to the Olympics?”
Now she can say yes.
“I think it will be great for our sport—the publicity and just having more people join and the sport growing,” she says. “But there’s a lot of people that are not for it, that think it’s bad for our sport.”
Olympic officials have reasons to approach their deepening relationship with action sports cautiously as well.
During the 1998 Games, the winner of the first Olympic snowboarding event ever to be contested, Canadian Ross Rebagliati, tested positive for marijuana. The IOC stripped him of his victory but had to reinstate it after a Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling.
More recently, 2006 Olympic snowboard halfpipe bronze medalist Scotty Lago “voluntarily left” the Vancouver Games after photos surfaced of a woman kissing his medal while it hung around his waist.
Lago describes the “ambassador” training that the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association did with potential Olympians in recent months as extensive.
“I think they’re all a little paranoid about social media because everyone has Twitter, Facebook, Instagram—and it’s instant,” says Lago, who did not qualify for Sochi.
The action-sports athletes who are on the Olympic team have heard the warnings and listened to the rules.
They say they’ll follow them. In their own way, of course.
“We don’t want to get thrown out of the Olympics,” Bowman says. But, she adds, “if it’s for something really cool, that would be cool.”
Vicki Michaelis covered six Olympic Games as the lead Olympics writer for USA Today. She is the Carmical Distinguished Professor in Sports Journalism and Society at the University of Georgia and directs a new sports media program at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.