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Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Snowboarding goes big

By Melissa Larsen
ESPN Action Sports

Shaun White: from snowboarding superstar to superstar snowboarder.

This weekend, on the 78-time Emmy-winning news show "60 Minutes," Shaun White will be interviewed by veteran news journalist, and holder of 23 personal Emmys, including a Lifetime Achievement Emmy, Bob Simon. The on-location profile will include riding footage from the private "Project X" Olympic-training halfpipe that White's sponsors built him in Silverton, Colo., last season.

Three months ago, the gossip rag OK Magazine asked its nearly half a million North American readers: "Are Louie Vito & Chelsie Hightower Ready to Go Public as a Couple?" The snowboarder, posing with his "Dancing With The Stars" partner, was resplendent in a pop-collared, sleeveless shirt; the story was wedged in between articles on Hulk Hogan's return to pro wrestling and Michael Jackson's posthumous $50,000 skin treatment bill. Online, Vito's story garnered more comments ("LOL!! They're so cute together!") than any other gossip item posted that day.

In 2010, the drama, heartbreak, glory and controversy leading up to the Winter Games has captivated audiences and the mainstream media for months before anyone even knew which riders would compete in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, all but three U.S. ski resorts have abandoned their old-school draconian bans on this "fad sport" known as snowboarding. Perhaps it's time to start treating people who don't take snowboarding seriously like a cranky grandparent who lived through the Great Depression and can't believe how much a cup of coffee costs these days. Just sigh and try not to roll your eyes. Because, whether or not grandpa ever chooses to accept it, time has marched on. Here in the future, one thing has become impossible to deny: Snowboarding is big time, and it's only getting bigger.

Let's take a stroll down memory lane. It's 1998, and snowboarding is about to make its debut in the Olympics. The sport's biggest name, Terje Haakonsen, boycotts because he doesn't believe the United States Ski and Snowboard Association or the International Skiing Federation understands snowboarding. To prove him wrong, USSA makes Animal, the Muppet, the official mascot of the U.S. Snowboarding team. A feature article in the pre-Games coverage in the Los Angeles Times opens with the lead: "Here's the latest on those long-haired, baggy-trousered, navel-pierced skateboarders who scatter like geese when you blast the car horn in the grocery-store parking lot: Some of them are Olympians."

No more animals.

During the Games, snowboard racers are escorted off the mountain after their runs because the resort their races are held on doesn't officially allow snowboarding. And after the Games, Sports Illustrated wraps up its snowboarding coverage with the conclusion: "The mountain park [Kanbayashi] about 25 miles outside Nagano [is] home to not only the Olympic snowboarders but also famous wild monkeys ... They really were amazing -- howling at the top of their lungs, smelling a little funny and doing rude things in public. The monkeys were interesting, too."

Fast-forward 12 years and Shaun White has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, ESPN The Magazine, Fast Company, Nylon, Sports Illustrated, Men's Journal and Outside, he's been in an American Express commercial and is the star of his own self-titled video game. Gretchen Bleiler is one of six (out of more than 2,500) Olympic athletes whose image will appear on the side of Coke's special-edition 2010 Olympic-themed soda cans. And the Dew Tour, which is broadcast on NBC, MTV, USA and in more than 100 countries through affiliate international networks, has expanded into skiing and snowboarding and claimed more than 26 million viewers for its first winter tour.

In 2006 the entire world tuned in to watch snowboarding in the Olympics. In 2010, the drama, heartbreak, glory and controversy leading up to the Winter Games has captivated audiences and the mainstream media for months before anyone even knew which riders would compete in Vancouver.

But before any of the players in the Olympic drama head toward the mud pit at Cypress Mountain, they have one important stop to make: Winter X -- an event that for 14 years has been both a showcase and a proving ground for snowboarding's biggest stars and aspiring champions. Clues to all sorts of Olympic-related questions will be divulged in Aspen, like ...

Will anyone be able to match the technical wizardry of White's newest nearly unfathomable trick, the double McTwist 1260? Will long shot turned Olympic team member Scotty Lago throw down an inspired run in tribute to his fallen Frends Danny Davis and Kevin Pearce? Will Torah Bright become the first woman to throw and stomp a double cork in competition? When strapped to the deck of a snowboard, just how nimble are Louie Vito's dancing feet?

Vito's going to have a slightly different cheering section in Vancouver.

Questions that an Olympic-obsessed mainstream audience might no doubt miss, but have vexed hard-core snowboarding fans all season, will be answered in Aspen as well. Will Travis Rice unveil his newest, sure to be unbeatable if he pulls it, big air trick? Can Spencer O'Brien, Janna Meyen-Weatherby or Sarka Panc put an end to Jamie Anderson's dominance over women's slope? Has Lindsey Jacobellis finally learned how to successfully pull a method?

The fact that none of the thousands of articles about the pre-Olympic events of the past few months has compared snowboarding's top athletes to monkeys or juvenile delinquents may be the biggest indicator that it has finally gained acceptance internationally as a legitimate sport -- which is nice, but it's something we here at the X Games have known all along.