Snowboarding in the Olympics

Snowboarding and the Winter Olympics: A match made in snow heaven, right? Not exactly. When snowboarding was added to the Olympics in 1998 (the Nagano games), many top snowboarders were disgruntled.

Terje Haakonsen, for example, was a snowboarder on the level of Michael Jordan in the NBA. He refused to participate, and staged a sparsely attended alternative event instead. Haakonsen even compared the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, to the Mafia. Others were sympathetic to his stance.

What was that all about?

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 it was an assault on snowboarders. But 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.)

Despite a rough beginning, snowboarding is now mainstream. It’s 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.

Even so, industry insiders and some athletes wish that high-level athletes would leave the Olympics. Pat Bridges, an editor with Snowboard magazine, has argued that “the Olympics needs snowboarding more than snowboarding needs The Games.” In short, the IOC garners huge sums of money from riders while giving the sport a pittance, and runs roughshod over the desires of snowboarders. In a companion piece, Henning Andersen estimates that the IOC derives $100 million each Olympic cycle from snowboarding, and then asks, “Where does all the money go? We in snowboarding certainly don’t see any of it.” (Andersen would like more IOC money go to support snowboard tours–leagues, if you will–outside the FIS.)

So part of the dispute is an old-fashioned tussle over how the various parties in a sport/spectacle divide an extremely large part of money. A lot of popular interest in a sport means that advertisers are willing to pay broadcasters large amounts of money to reach an audience. Where does that money then go? What is the balance between the networks and the leagues or federations? Unlike team sports, snowboarding doesn’t have a conflict between owners and players, but what Bridges and Andersen want is a greater allocation of the money away from networks and the IOC.

And it’s easy to be sympathetic, even if you have no hopes of snowboarding for fame or cash. The IOC is arguably a corrupt organization that puts increasingly outrageous demands on host cities. (The IOC is not alone in this; the NFL routinely extracts cash from cities that host the Super Bowl.) The demands for financial renumeration and special treatment (example: special road lanes and airport entrances/exits for IOC delegates) have lead a number of cities to withdraw their bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics, leaving Kazakhstan and China as the only two counties left with bids. As Andersen observes, “the only countries that are left to hold the Olympics are those where the population doesn’t have any say in the matter.”

From the viewpoint of the American television view, the Olympic broadcasts are incredibly bloated. There are, to start with, lots of commercials. Now, the 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) of athletes. A little goes a long way. Then there’s tape delay, which seems very out of place in today’s world.

But the Olympics will be with us for a long time, most likely, and they do generate a lot of exposure for snowboarding. So unless viewers turn from them in large numbers, snowboarding and the Olympics will continue to be uneasy partners.

Sources: “Boycott the Olympics: The IOC needs snowboarding more than we need them,” Snowboarder.com, November 4, 2014.

The IOC demands that helped push Norway out of Winter Olympic bidding are hilarious,” Slate, October 2, 2014.

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