Yes, here we go, just what the world needs. Another article about snowboarding competition.
If the issue hasn’t already been done, dusted and put to bed with a glass of milk and its favourite teddy bear by this Matt Barr piece, this article by Ed Leigh or this diatribe by a cartoon penguin, then what more could possibly be added to the debate? Is there anything left to say about snowboard competition?
Well, in the context of tackling the small question of “what the hell is going on with snowboarding,” the topic of competition is unavoidable. It’s like talking to someone with a massive, pulsating zit on the end of their nose–you can’t avoid it no matter how hard you try to look elsewhere.
Now, I write this not as a former professional, not as an industry person, not as someone who has ever actually worked at a competition, not as an insider who understands the nuances and politics of the various governing bodies. I write this as a common-or-garden average Joe who mainly engages with competition snowboarding through a web browser. I do have a small claim to fame that I made the podium in the British Masters snowboarding championships, but that only sits marginally above scoring two goals in the Pembrokeshire under 12’s cup final in 1986.
Anyway, the point is, I’m like the rest of you when it comes to actually knowing anything about this stuff. Opinions (including mine) are like a*s holes–everyone’s got one. I just happen to have a WordPress account with The Inertia. And I think…a half decent idea about what to do…so read on.
When it comes to tackling this question in 2019, it’s kind of like asking the village idiot for directions. “I wouldn’t start from here…”
The situation we find ourselves in with competitive snowboarding is actually ridiculous. To avoid me having to toil over all the old issues, I refer you to the articles mentioned above…but you know that something must be wrong with competition when we actually have no idea who the best snowboarder is, when riders landing 1620s has somehow become boring, and “creativity” equates to not grabbing mute. Something definitely needs fixing.
To properly address this, we just need to cover a few bases.
Firstly, we do actually need competition. I have no real interest in competing myself, that’s not why I snowboard, but we need competition to drive us forward as a species. Just like I have no real interest in fighting, but when I was a kid if there was a fight at school I would watch and egg them on like everyone else, because knowing who the toughest kid was really mattered to everyone. If you think that’s a weird position to take, read Lord of the Flies (if you haven’t already studied it in English literature classes).
Secondly, competition is actually acceptable now. There was a time when trying to win was definitely not cool, and any remotely jock-like behavior (like eating chicken breasts, hitting the gym to do leg presses or doing more than one run in the pipe before taking a break to smoke a joint) was frowned upon. Mark McMorris and Scotty James are incredibly fierce competitors who would try really hard to beat you at ping pong, yet they’re not considered douchebags. Jamie Anderson and Chloe Kim try really hard to win, but that hasn’t made them any less adorable in the eyes of the snowboarding (or mainstream) populous.
Maybe since Shaun hung up his boots after the most dramatic, clutch performance of all time, the association between “winning” and “uncoolness” has dissipated. I actually really like what Shaun White represents–he entered comps to win, which is the point. And it’s not his fault he’s a ginger. But either way, it’s good that it’s OK to try and win now.
As a spectator/viewer of competition that’s really good. If I have gone to the effort of googling “Laax Open Live Stream,” I sure as hell want to see the guys in that pipe trying their goddamn hardest. If not, I’m going to do some gardening instead.
But weirdly, for someone who for literally two decades voraciously consumed every possible form of snowboarding content like an escapee from a Turkish prison stumbling across an ice cream parlor, I’m now actually not that bothered about watching competition. This year, I just found it all a bit boring.
The issue for me is that there simply isn’t a coherent narrative which binds it all together, and there really isn’t any jeopardy anymore. The narrative thread could be as simple as a world tour, where all the events contribute to someone being crowned “the best.” That would definitely help.
Ed Leigh made a really good argument for a “dream tour” in snowboarding (where tour riders tackle a number of different disciplines in dream locations), but I actually think that having a “best all-rounder” risks taking the edges off the extremities of the sport. Having someone who is quite good at multiple disciplines isn’t quite as interesting, in my opinion at least, as knowing who is the best at pipe/slope/rails/big mountain. I cite skiing as an example (ouch, sorry…). We (well, “they”) celebrate the downhillers more than the all-rounders. You don’t get your name on a gondola in Kitzbuhel for accruing the most points across multiple disciplines. You get that if you are the fastest to ski down a really steep hill. I think we want competition that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in all the disciplines, rather than gives us good generalists or tacticians. But like I said, that’s just my opinion and my arsehole.
Whilst the WSL gives us a coherent narrative in surfing, and there is a strong correlation between who is subjectively “the best” surfer and the winner of the tour, it has fallen foul of criticism that the system has rewarded a fairly vanilla version of what surfing can be. Whether that is an issue with the heat format, judging system or the overall structure of the tour is moot (…and that’s a whole other article), but if the system can’t really accommodate a Dane Reynolds then there is definitely an argument that it rewards some of the wrong behaviors/skills. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that the tour hasn’t been the showcase for surfing’s progression, but has instead rewarded the best competitors.
So I actually think it’s OK to have a splintering of snowboard comp into multiple formats such as street rails, slope, pipe and freeride – because then there’s a good chance of the best riders in those disciplines turning up (rather than all-rounders), the sport’s progression being captured between the ad breaks and the winners being rewarded accordingly.
But to be honest, there is much more to it than a well-organized world tour. I think we need characters, we need to engage with the riders. Only weirdos like me care about competition structure, normal human beings care about people. We need to be invested in the riders’ stories and we need to care if they win or lose.
When those magical ingredients coalesce, people can get excited about almost anything. I give you curling for example (and I know this reference point is relevant on both sides of the pond). Curling is not exciting as a sport. It is played by almost no one. Yet during the Olympics, people went absolutely bat shit crazy about it, because there was real jeopardy. Life-changing moments that hinged on millimeters. When you know someone’s future will be changed forever by winning or losing, you’re far more invested.
Competition has to create winners and losers and it has to create heroes and villains. It has to create posters that go on little girls’ and little boys’ bedroom walls and inspire them to ride. If snowboarding competitions are just a big huggy bro-down where anonymous Scandinavians roll out platitudes like, “I’m just here to ride with my friends and have fun,” then we inevitably get bored. If they don’t care about the competition why should we?
Into the vacuum has stepped the Olympics with its satan-channeling, money-hoovering, matching-tracksuit-wearing bravado. The Olympics turn jeopardy way past 11. The Olympics CHANGE LIVES. Just ask Sage Kotsenburg. He’s been dicking about for years now, dining out on his gold medal and doing what the f*** he wants (and good for him too, who could blame him, that’s what I would do).
The Olympics are the only real competition that matters anymore. I know Red Gerard was a bit tearful when he won the US Open this year (and core snowboarders would have a legitimate argument that it’s the most important competition, given its history), but that result will be forgotten by everyone else before you can say “dude” five times in one sentence. Red’s life really changed the day he got his hands on that gold medal. Winning the Burton US Open is a nice footnote in that bigger picture.
The Olympics fail on so many levels, but they brute force our interest, they are like a massive great mallet smacking everyone on the head. You can’t ignore it, even if you end up losing some major cerebral faculties and all sensibility for the nuances of the sport, it is the best and biggest fight for us to watch. The jeopardy and bloodlust trumps everything else.
So…what the f*** to do?
Well, I think we have to accept that the Olympics (and the funnelling events leading up to it) really are now the vehicle for the competition-based view of snowboarding. It’s a travesty that it’s being organized by skiers (again, at least three more articles could be written about that) and the Olympic business model is horrible, and…yep, you’ve heard all this before. But the jock side of the sport will inevitably align to the quadrennial cycle and the “best” snowboarder in the eyes of the masses will be the last one that won the Olympics.
Does that mean the end of the X games, Dew tour etc.? If they don’t re-invent themselves, quite possibly. So what should happen? Beyond the boundaries of the high-jeopardy FIS/Olympics/Chat Show Sofa funnel, I’ve got four ideas to share:
Make Subjectively-Judged Videos the Main Competitive Vehicle
If we can’t create life-changing competitive jeopardy outside of the Olympics which brute-forces our bloodthirsty interest, I think snowboarding needs to over-index on personalities and stories to build a connection with the action. “Real X” is making a half-decent fist of this, but there is so much more room for improvement. Watching snowboarding is entertainment, so those who are trying to build the sport really should be attracting film studies students and scriptwriters to create…well…engaging entertainment. Make us care by making us care about the players. Build our heroes again.
The performance side will take care of itself because people fundamentally like showing off, and outside of a “must land in two tries” situation, people will be free to push the boundaries even further.
There is, of course, a huge danger that this all goes a bit Jersey Shore and lame, but that’s down to execution not the concept. It doesn’t have to be lame. It shouldn’t be lame. Hire some decent minds and it won’t be lame. We can all vote for the winner using the internet. I bet you all the money I don’t have that the winners would be the most creative, most interesting people. That’s surely a win for snowboarding, right?
Chinese Downhill Racing
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I would really like to see a race where people absolutely blatt it down a steep hill (not sure if that translates stateside, but it basically means going fast and out of control with no care for personal safety). It doesn’t have to go full Grenade Games and involve chugging a beer at the bottom of the course, but who wouldn’t want to watch a winner-takes-all, wacky races-meets-boardercross-meets opening the doors at a Bruce Springsteen concert-meets Munich beer festival.
I like going fast, and I think it is a really fundamental part of snowboarding’s appeal. I would like to see us rewarding people who can go fast. It provides a visceral juxtaposition with those who can do pretty swirly things in the air. But I want to know the back-story and what their moms think too.
I suspect saying this almost breaks all of my arguments above, but I wanted to stick it in anyway. I think you could improve competition with some scoring tweaks.
Each rider has one run which is indexed against maximum spinning and flipping, and then one run that is indexed on maximum creativity with grabs. Finally, if anyone else does the trick that you do, both of your scores for that trick are diluted.
So riders would have to show their athletic prowess, their creativity and also their ability to do stuff that no-one else can do. They wouldn’t risk going for a 1440 mute because 10 other people can do it and they’d get a heavily-diluted score as a result. It would force riders to explore new creative avenues and demonstrate their unique talents. It would reward the riders with the greatest breadth of skills and help us find out who really is the best.
If anyone wants to implement this idea, send me the royalties in the form of a yearly trip to Baldface Lodge.
And again, remember we need stories, heroes etc…
Finally, the Shadow
This requires absolutely no changes to formats, competition structure, governing bodies or anything really. It just requires the riders to be down with it, and some money to reward them.
Snowboarding is at its best when sticking it to the man. Especially a sucky corporate sponsor or a FIS representative. Deep down, we all want to celebrate the riders who don’t play by the rules.
You can let someone else have all the hassle of setting up and running competitions and organizing insurance and stuff, but at the end of the year there would be a “Shadow” tour prize to the rider who has consistently demonstrated the most creativity and style.
You can create the most amazing competition without ever having to actually create a competition. Imagine if Danny Davis did an entire pipe run of switch methods at the X Games, then an entire run of cross rocket airs at the Laax Open…knowing that if he nailed it, come April he would have a fat check (as well as the respect of his peers) from the “Shadow Tour.”
So, I hereby announce that I will pay an undisclosed sum of money to the rider who does the most creative runs on the competition circuit next year. That’s a promise. To all you like-minded sponsors, business angels and private equity executives…the guys at The Inertia have my email address…let’s get this sorted.
Well…if that doesn’t save competitive snowboarding from certain death, I don’t know what will. Time for a beer and a meditative stare into the middle distance I think.
Next up, the atomization of everything.
Editor’s Note: This the second in a three-part series that examines snowboarding in essay form. David Blackwell is a longtime columnist for Whitelines. You can read Part I, here.