The massive appeal of youth-focused creative events, such as snowboard and Freestyle Skiing at the Winter Olympics is a virtual case study of how the old radical can go mainstream.
And while audiences have come to love these relatively new sports, the history of snowboarding’s inclusion in the Olympics also reveals the unintended consequences of “success” on the image of the sport itself.
When snowboarding first appeared in the late 1960s and 1970s in North America, most of its early pioneers were young people who rejected the competitive, organized sport. Inspired by surfing and skateboarding rather than skiing, they were looking for something that offered fun, self-expression and a alternate identity.
Despite some initial resistance from skiers and resorts, snowboarding’s popularity grew during the 1990s. Television and corporate sponsors recognized its enormous potential to appeal to the elusive young male market. More and more, transnational media companies and events love it X Games and gravity games controlled and defined snowboard.
Meanwhile, the Winter Olympics (still a more niche event than its summer counterpart) recognized snowboarding’s potential to attract young viewers and international sponsors.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) first included snowboarding in the 1998 Winter Olympics, but under the governance of the International Ski Federation (FIS) rather than the International Snowboard Federation. Loss of autonomy and control has infuriated many snowboarders.
The best halfpipe runner in the world at the time, Norwegian Terje Haakonsen, was particularly vocal, refusing to be turned into a “logo wearing uniform, flag and march”. Many other snowboarders echoed his sentiments.
Read more: How the Winter Olympics grew – and brought with them growing pains
And while snowboarding is assimilation continued, the four events that debuted in 1998 – the men’s and women’s halfpipe and the giant slalom – were largely treated as a sideshow. Athletes were perceived and portrayed as intruders on the Olympic programme. Like The Washington Post said so:
Snowboarders are the official curiosity of the Nagano Winter Games. They are totally new to the Olympics. They look different, they sound different, they are different.
When the Canadian Ross Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana after winning the first gold medal in snowboarding, the IOC revoked his medal, only to return it days later when Rebagliati’s lawyers found a loophole in IOC/FIS drug policies. The scandal confirmed the view – of snowboarders and mainstream commentators alike – that snowboarding was not ready to become an Olympic sport.
Acceptance and growth
By the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, however, snowboarding packaging had evolved and the sport‘s second mainstream outing was considered a resounding success. Nearly 32% of the American population (92 million people) watched the halfpipe competition in which Americans won gold, silver and bronze in men’s and gold in women’s .
Official broadcaster NBC reported a 23% increase in ratings among 18-34 year olds. For the IOC, the inclusion of snowboarding was a game-changer, bringing cool new sports celebrities to Olympic audiences, especially in the lucrative US market.
Read more: Get carried away by the Olympic spirit, but keep your (political) eyes wide open
At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, snowboarders were front and center, with Shaun White of the United States considered the most “recognizable athlete”.
When White won his third halfpipe gold medal at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, it drew a record 22.6 million viewers in the United States alone. Having qualified for his fifth Olympics, White will bring his star power to Beijing this year.
women on board
Female snowboarders have competed in every Olympic event since 1998, expand opportunities for women in sport and industry.
Olympic female snowboarders such as Kelly Clark, Hannah Tetter, Torah Bright and Chloe Kim are building on the efforts of previous generations of female snowboarders, creating a new space for girls and women in sport.
In the process of impressing the public, they also inspired the next generation stars like New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Japan’s Ono Mitsuki.
It is estimated that women will make up 45% of athletes competing in Beijing this year, including in the new mixed team snowboard cross event, added as part of a wider program IOC initiative to achieve gender parity.
Victim of its own success?
While the IOC has toed the line with some rules and regulations (no stickers on snowboards, no big company logos on clothing or equipment), it has been increasingly willing to adapt. snowboarder’s individuality – allowing more clothing choices and athletes to choose their own music for halfpipe slopes.
The success of snowboarding has also helped open up the Winter Olympics to other youth sports, especially free ski disciplineswhile influencing the Summer Olympics’ adoption of BMX, surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and breaking.
Read more: Alt goes mainstream: How surfing, skateboarding, BMX and sport climbing became Olympic events
But there is also an irony in the mainstream success of snowboarding. Although it has become popular with a wider audience and businesses and athletes have benefited greatly from the Olympic exposure, it seems to have lost its appeal with young people.
Attendance was steadily decreasing in recent years – to the point where former professional snowboarder and action sports agent Circe Wallace has said that the sport commodification and institutionalization were “the death knell for the unique culture and beauty of snowboarding”.
It’s a familiar story – the freshness of youth culture incorporated by mainstream businesses and organizations for profit. As the IOC continues to search for latest youth sports to help it stay relevant, rejuvenate viewers, and attract corporate sponsors, we’d do well to ask ourselves who, ultimately, are the real winners and the real losers.