The Olympic promise
Why the Olympics and snowboard slopestyle can (and should) get along
In 2006, I was working for NBC on its Winter Olympics broadcast and stationed at the International Broadcast Center in Torino, Italy. My office was right next to the studio where Bob Costas conducted all the interviews for the prime-time show, outside of which was a large common area that was used by hundreds of my co-workers to access their offices, the talent dressing rooms, the studios and the executive offices. One evening, while navigating the considerable human traffic in this space, I noticed a phalanx of handlers turn the corner. They were ushering Hannah Teter, just a few hours after her gold medal performance in snowboard halfpipe, into her prime-time interview.
There were probably 30 or 40 people in the common area at that moment -- everyone from catering guys bringing important executives their dinner to important executives with no time for dinner. All of them were in a crazed rush. And every single one of them stopped what they were doing and began to applaud. For a full two minutes, this cross section of people embroiled in one of the largest, most complicated productions in sports television all ceased to be NBC employees. They were Americans, and they were loudly cheering for one of their new heroes. Teter stood there with a look of slight disbelief, beaming.
So, cue the teeth-gnashing and worry. Just don't expect Teter -- or any snowboarder with Olympic experience for that matter -- to join in.
With the IOC's announcement that snowboard slopestyle (and ski slopestyle) will be added to the schedule of events for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, there is bound to be some significant backlash in the snowboarding community. The sport has always had an uneasy relationship with the Olympics, dating back to Terje Haakonsen's boycott of the inaugural halfpipe event in 1998. The IOC's insistence that snowboarding be brought in under the auspices of the rigid, skier-led FIS rubs many in the sport's community of professionals and industry bigwigs the wrong way to this day. And even though the current generation of riders who stand to benefit from this decision are too young to appreciate the merit of the battles previously fought, they nevertheless understand that Olympic inclusion will bring new pressures -- not all of them positive -- to bear on their sport. Hence the newly announced "We Are Snowboarding" riders union headed by Chas Guldemond.
So cue the teeth-gnashing and worry. Roll out the articles about how snowboarding has sold its soul to the Olympic devil and how style will now be systematically drained out of slopestyle competitions and how all the real snowboarders are in the backcountry or prowling city streets until dawn anyway. Blast the Twitter-verse with anti-FIS screeds about how they'll never understand the sport. Watch the pros organize a boycott at some point in the next few winters to try and gain some leverage with the IOC. The sentiment behind all of this is sincere, and issues raised are legitimate and need to be addressed.
Don't expect Teter -- or any other snowboarder with Olympic experience, for that matter -- to join in. What Teter saw that night in the International Broadcast Center five years ago was a glimpse of something that's often lost in discussions about snowboarding in the Olympics. Yes, the event is ultimately a massive advertising vehicle painted in a garish shade of sanctimony. Yes, the IOC has a shocking lack of interest in what the athletes who actually create their product have to say. Yes, there is evidence that the Olympics can take a cool sport and squeeze all the cool out of it (trust me when I tell you there was a time when mogul skiing was the coolest winter sport in the world). But there's more to it than that.
"It was crazy," Teter says now when she talks about her victory in 2006. "It was the first time I'd been on a podium in front of a stadium. It felt different. At first it didn't feel emotional, but I saw how [Gretchen Bleiler and Kjersti Buaas] couldn't believe it and I realized. It was a bigger deal than I thought going in."
The Olympics unify people -- whole nations of them -- in a celebration of everything inspiring about sports. That's not the promise of the Games; it's the reality. It's why athletes are moved to tears on the podium and why most of them are rendered speechless when asked to describe their Olympic experience. It's why those people broke into spontaneous applause that night when Teter walked into the International Broadcast Center, and why Shaun White had a similar -- and much larger -- experience when he walked through the baggage claim area of LAX after his win a week later.
I am not what you would call an uncynical man, but my experience in Torino, and two years later working on the Beijing Games, left me convinced that there's something at the heart of the Olympic enterprise that transcends the billions of dollars and generations of politics. Can it transcend the considerable challenges snowboarding faces in ensuring that the 2014 Olympic Slopestyle will indeed crown the greatest rider in that discipline on a course worthy of the best field ever assembled?
That has yet to be determined, and it's ultimately for others to figure out. But it can happen, and I for one hope that it does. Because I can't wait to stop whatever I'm doing the first time I encounter that rider and break into spontaneous applause.