Snowboarding: A Cold Shoulder On The Slopes

Why so many snowboarders are steamed at the Olympics

If you want to see the raddest dude on a snowboard, check out a 23-year-old Norwegian named Terje Haakonsen. He was World Champion for the past two years and is undefeated so far this season in the half-pipe, an event that consists of looping back and forth between two steep snow banks, with a double back-flip or some other heart-stopping trick thrown in. You can catch him on ESPN's X-treme Games or watch the video Subjekt: Haakonsen--Life and Times of a Sprocking Cat.

But don't look for Haakonsen in Nagano, where snowboarding debuts as a medal event. Haakonsen announced in early January that he is boycotting the Olympics because of the "Mafia-like" International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Haakonsen's defection is just the latest blow in a skirmish between the IOC and the iconoclastic snowboarding community. Usually a sport's governing body must petition the IOC to be included in the Games. But the IOC decided on its own in 1996 to include TV-friendly snowboarding, despite concerns among the athletes that snowboard competition is still evolving and shouldn't be locked into formal, Olympic-style rules.

But what really has snowboarders steamed is the IOC designation of the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS), the overseer of ski racing, as the sport's governing body, instead of the International Snowboarding Federation. "The FIS doesn't know the first thing about how to run a snowboard race," says Jake Burton, founder of Burton Snowboards in Burlington, Vt. "Ski racing is all about teams, not individuals."

The two camps have been warring ever since. A task force, led by Burton, hammered out an agreement in 1996 with the U.S. Ski & Snowboarding Team (USST) that would open Olympic qualifying events to all comers, instead of using the complex ranking system used to choose ski racers. But last summer, the task force filed a lawsuit against the ski team, still pending, accusing it of not living up to the pact. USST spokesman Tom Kelley says the two sides never had an official agreement, but the USST did go back to an open qualifying system last fall. Still, the USST requires Olympic hopefuls to travel, train, and dress as a team--and that has boarders chafing. "I'm not into the team thing at all," says Cara-Beth Burnside, a contender for the U.S. half-pipe team. "This gives a lot of us mixed feelings. It's all serious all of a sudden."

The ill will got worse when the USST chose as its snowboard mascot a wild-eyed Jim Henson puppet named Animal that harkens back to the early image of snowboarders as undisciplined "knuckledraggers"--an image the industry has worked hard to overcome. Perhaps the most laughable insult, though, is that the Olympic boarding event is being held at a ski resort in Nagano that ordinarily bans snowboarders.

SHAGGY FANS. Plenty of boarders disdain the whole idea of the Olympics. "I don't think we belong there," writes top competitor Circe Wallace in an essay posted on a snowboard Web site. "The Olympic Committee wants to squash everything that's special about the sport."

Snowboarding's anti-Establishment image did help sell the sport. In its early days 20 years ago, it drew the same sort of enthusiasts as skateboarding--shaggy teenage boys in baggy clothes. But as women and older skiers got the bug, growth has been phenomenal. Industry stats show the number of U.S. boarders has soared 270% since 1987, to 3.7 million. Alpine skiing grew only 2% over the period, to 10.5 million.

The Olympic showcase is certain to increase boarding's popularity. "When you think of the mass audience, they'll remember the event, not who wasn't there," says the USST's Kelley. Which is fine with some boarders. "To my friends and peers at Nagano, I'll truly be rooting for you," writes Wallace. "[But] I'll choose to be on top of a mountain."

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