After turning in another round of heart-pounding performances at the Vancouver Olympics, the world’s best snowboarders are trying to enjoy what time they have left on the world’s biggest stage.
While the athletes’ dizzying moves in the halfpipe are something they have command of, navigating the rapidly-evolving media — where every camera phone is potentially as powerful as a satellite truck, and every Twitter post is fair game — has proven much more challenging.
Bronze-medalist Scotty Lago is the latest snowboarder to be caught in an embarrassing situation after pictures of him partying Thursday night appeared on the gossip website TMZ on Friday.
That Lago would be partying is hardly surprising or even controversial. But fears that his behavior may have offended the IOC’s reverence for their Olympic medals (which were starring in the photos) compelled him to apologize to U.S. Olympic officials on Friday before “voluntarily” packing his bags and heading home.
Several U.S. snowboard stars have been caught in sticky situations during their time in Vancouver, some more hilarious than others. Greg Bretz, 19, won a McNugget eating contest two days before his halfpipe event started. Hannah Teter is all over the headlines for selling her underwear to charity, and has been bogged down defending the decision to media. Even Coach Bud Keene’s expletive-laden pep talk to Shaun White was captured on live television on accident by NBC.
Snowboarding and snowboarders have had a tenuous relationship with the Games and the omnipresent media ever since its 1998 Olympic debut in Nagano. Minutes after snowboarding’s first gold medal was awarded to Canadian Ross Rebagliati, the IOC marked the milestone by rushing through the door and stripping it away.
Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana. Whoops.
Back then, snowboarders had enemies, too. None bigger than the skiing community, who cited Rebagliati’s bad PR as more proof that snowboarders — the young, unruly and unwashed tribe of rebellious little fringe dwellers — remained a threat to their very way of life. The battle between mountain tribes was already fracturing the cultural fabric of families, businesses and even entire towns at the time.
To this day, snowboarders are to skiers what bicyclers are to drivers. And, you might say, skiers are to snowboarders what cops are to convicts. But a dtente was eventually achieved thanks to the smell of money.
The ski industry has now made billions of dollars off snowboarders. And snowboarders have pandered to the skier class to gain entrance to their bank accounts, their Games and most notably the hallowed mountain-sides they were once barred from even using.
But after years of bending to other people’s rules, snowboarders have definitely found their place. Even this year’s U.S. team uniforms speak to this. The clean, conforming Yankee pinstripes of 2006 have been abandoned in favor of flannel tops and big, baggy, tortured denim pants (actually bomb-proof Gore-Tex fabric with high detailed graphics) that pay homage to the sports’ rebellious past.
Thanks to Shaun White’s popularity, snowboarders are much more willing to let their guard down and be themselves again while under the bright lights. That’s a dangerous proposition in a TMZ and Twitter age.
Snowboarders are proud to be here in the Olympics, and they’re unquestionably athletic, but it’s important to know that most of them couldn’t care less about being “athletes.”
Bretz (who also was captured in the background of one of the TMZ photos) summed that point up best when he spoke of his pre-Olympic workout routine: “I was planning to go to the gym last year, but it didn’t really work out.”
A little too much light on our heroes can be a dangerous thing. But we certainly shouldn’t be surprised that some snowboarder got captured acting silly on a night of celebration. We should, however, be saddened that he had to flee his Olympic moment simply because he was TMZ’d.
Scotty Lago and Shaun White in the right kind of light. Photo: Dennis via Getty Images