One way to enjoy snowboarding is to engage in competitive events. Yes, even Grays on Trays compete. There are several different options.
If you’d like to track your progress over the course of a season, and earn some bragging points against your skiing buddies, you might wish to seek out a resort with NASTAR course. NASTAR calls itself “the largest public grassroots ski race program in the world,” operating at over 115 locations, ranging from mom-and-pop ski hills to mega-resorts such as Aspen Snowmass. Skiers and riders both take on gates, record a time, and just perhaps earn recognition as a racer. It all runs on a handicapping system, much like golf. It works by age groups and sex, so a middle-aged woman does not compete with a teenaged man. In addition, there’s a separate category for snowboarders, who get a more generous handicap, regardless of age or sex.
If you score highly enough, you’ll get an invitation to the national championship, which is held toward the end of the season at a major resort. The editor of this site had qualified two times for the national event, but did not participate.
NASTAR was founded in 1968 by SKI magazine, and the legacy of skiing is quite evident. In addition, very few snowboarders participate in the national championships. In fact, participation by snowboarders at any level is rather low. During the 2013-2014 season, for example, 440 male and female snowboarders (ages 18 and older) compiled race times on three different days, enabling them to earn a national ranking. By contrast, there were 630 skiers with a national ranking–and that just among men aged 60-64.
The most obvious reason for the disparity is that skiing is roughly 4 times as popular as snowboarding. Yet skier participation in NASTAR outstrips snowboarder participation by much more than that. So there are more factors at work, one of which is that competitive snowboarding in the U.S. has gravitated away from racing and toward freestyle.
The United State of America Snowboard Association, better known by its acronym, the USASA, bills itself “the first governing body exclusively for competitive grassroots snowboarding.”
The USASA conducts open as well as age-specific events, including some for the “seven and under” set. But once you hit 30, it has four different age divisions for snowboarding adults:
- Master (30 to 39 years old);
- Legend (40 to 49 years old);
- Kahuna (50 to 59); and
- Methuselah (over 60). Note that in the Bible–in Genesis 5:27–Methuselah was said to have died at an age of 969 years old. How’s that for durability?
As of October 1, 2014, the number of men 30+ with a USASA national ranking was about one-quarter the number of men 30+ with a NASTAR national ranking. In either case, the number of participants is a blip in the ski and snowboard statistics.
Winter Olympics, X Games, and politics
While NASTAR and USASA are outfits for amateurs, now we turn our attention to professionals and snowboarders who perform at the highest levels.
Olympic snowboarders must go through U.S. Snowboarding, which is the snowboarding division of the United States Ski Association (USSA). The USSA, in turn, is the U.S. representative to the FIS (Federation Internationale de Ski), which is, for the Olympics, the governing body for both skiing and snowboarding. The Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) Snowboard Division is one of several organizations “administering one or more sports at (the) world level.”
For riders who are 40 years old and up, there’s little chance that any of us will be interested in duplicating the stunts and feats of competitive athletes who are in many cases decades younger than us. We can, though, watch. But what to watch? The idea of “competitive snowboarding” has been controversial from the start, especially when the Winter Olympics came calling. When snowboarding was added to the Olympics in 1998 (the Nagano games), many top snowboarders were disgruntled.
At the time, Terje Haakonsen was a snowboarder on the level that Michael Jordan achieved in basketball. Haakonsen refused to participate, and staged a sparsely attended alternative event instead. He even compared the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, to the Mafia. Others were sympathetic to his stance.
Some experienced riders objected to the idea of competition at all. Others did not like the fact that the IOC recognized the FIS (the world ski organization), rather than the International Snowboarding Federation (ISF), as the gateway to the games. By the lights of the critics, snowboarding was all about anti-skiing–or at least being not at all like skiing. Being absorbed into the FIS, by this view, was an assault on snowboarders. Despite the objections, the FIS has become the gateway, and in 2002, the ISF folded.
Some snowboarders, trumpeting the idea that riding is a lifestyle and not “merely” a sport, complained about the alleged stifling of creativity through requirements to wear national uniforms, train with national coaches, and the like. All this violates the “soul” of snowboarding, they said. And more than one voice was raised against drug testing policies. As if to confirm the stereotypes of snowboarders, the first winner in the men’s competition, Ross Rebagliati, was temporarily stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for pot. (He received his medal back, on procedural grounds, though he also disputed the allegation that he had recently smoked marijuana.)
But today, leading U.S. athletes strive to make the Olympic team, not reject it. Snowboarding is so mainstream, in fact, that when the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the stamp featured a snowboarder
It must be said that there are several good things about snowboarding being in the Olympics. First of all, it’s a place to showcase any sport to the casual audience. While there are non-Olympic events, most people don’t know about them. There are the Winter X Games, true, but the Olympics overshadow them.
The bad thing about the Olympics is that it’s incredibly bloated. There are, to start with, lots of commercials. Capitalism generates wealth, and commercial advertising pays the bills, but the commercials can get to be too much. The same for promotional spots for the network’s other shows. Don’t forget the “up close and personal” biographies (which may or may not be interesting) and other sports. Then there’s tape delay, which seems very out of place in today’s world.
But we watch them anyway–even if the International Olympic Committee is mired in charges of corruption, an its demands on host cities and countries become increasingly outrageous.
There are other competitive tours for high-level athletes, such as the World Snowboard Tour. But for most of us, they might as well not exist.
Ester Ledecka: Snowboarder, Skier, Racer
In the 2018 Winter Olympics, Ester Ledecka made history by being the first woman to win a gold medal in two different sports in the same Winter Olympics. She did so by winning the parallel GS snowboarding event (as expected) and also the super-G ski racing event (not expected).
Her win prompted the publication SkiRacing to publish a short debate on March 5, 2018, which asked, “Is Ester Lececk’s Super-G Win Good for Our Sport?”
Sean Higgins wrote:
I’ll be honest, the ski racing purist in me hated, and I mean hated, the idea of a part-time World Cup athlete – and a snowboarder, no less – walking away with an Olympic gold medal in alpine skiing. These other athletes have dedicated their entire lives to ski racing, how could this be?
Higgins, though, went on to admire Ledecka’s performance, calling it worthy of a gold medal. He concludes that it might help the sport of downhill ski racing, as well.
Higgin’s fellow contributor, Gabbi Hall, says we shouldn’t be so surprised.
The equipment changes between the two sports, but the racing mentality and tactics are similar. So, yes, she is a “part time skier,” but Ledecka is a full-time racer.
That’s correct as far as it goes, though the win was exceptional. Consider this analogy: Automotive racer in NASCAR and Formula 1 both drive cars at high speeds, but they rarely compete in both events. How much of that is the culture? The equipment? Mindset? It’s hard to say. But Ledecka showed that it’s possible to excel in more than one kind of snow-based competition.