First came snowboarding, accepted into the Olympics ungraciously in 1998, stumbling over unpleasant obstacles before eventually flourishing to become one of the Winter Games’ most-watched sports.
Now it’s freeskiing’s turn.
Though it’s not yet official, freeskiing halfpipe and slopestyle disciplines — like their snowboarding counterparts, incredibly popular X Games sports — are widely expected to debut at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., the national governing body for Olympic skiing and snowboarding, is so sure about the impending adoption of both sports that it has formed U.S. Freeskiing, a development program that parallels its U.S. Ski Team and U.S. Snowboarding brands.
Likewise, freeskiers are rallying behind the fairly new Assn. of Freeskiing Professionals, which aspires to provide a unified voice when dealing with promoters and governing bodies, including the International Ski Federation, or FIS, which governs ski sports for World Cup competitions and World Championships — both of which play a role in Olympics qualification.
“We are extremely excited,” said Target-sponsored Simon Dumont, a perennial X Games medalist from Bethel, Maine, who on Friday night finished third in the halfpipe competition at the X Games in Aspen, Colo. “The sport has progressed so much in the last five years and to get a chance to showcase what we can do on such a global stage would be amazing for our sport.”
Snowboarders and freeskiers have lots in common besides the ability to thrill crowds with acrobatic displays above halfpipe walls and slopestyle course jumps. To a significant degree they’re individualists, somewhat leery of the team concept and definitely leery of FIS.
Snowboarding, many may recall, did not track smoothly into the 1998 Nagano Games, where it debuted in less-than-ideal conditions. FIS became the governing body against the wishes of the fledgling International Snowboarding Federation. Snowboarders had no say regarding course design or what products they could endorse on their uniforms, and a goofy-looking mascot was forced upon them.
The best snowboarder at the time, Norway’s Terje Haakonsen, snubbed those Games and referred to then-International Olympic Committee Commissioner Juan Antonio Samaranch as mobster Al Capone, and to IOC members as “ski-Nazis.”
Now the world’s top freeskiers, hoping for a smoother entry in an era of an enlightened IOC, thanks to snowboarders having paved the way, are showcasing their skills at the X Games while looking forward to a chance perform before a mainstream global audience three years from now.
And things are happening quickly. The IOC has made note of freeskiing’s burgeoning popularity, of its potential to become an immediate success at the Sochi Games.
“Freeskiing is a distinctly different and growing segment of our sport,” explained Andrew Judelson, a USSA marketing executive. “Millions of young skiers worldwide are being drawn to this new genre of skiing.”
U.S. Freesking has been in the planning stages for months, with input from athletes, industry leaders and other partners, notably The North Face. After receiving encouraging signs from the IOC, the USSA added freeskiing to key national events. In December, halfpipe skiing joined snowboarding as part of the Visa U.S. Halfpipe Grand Prix at Copper Mountain in Colorado.
IOC President Jacques Rogge, who will make the official announcement regarding new sports for the Sochi Games after a review of events in World Championships, will be paying close attention.
Barring some weird scandal — remember the infamous Ross Rebagliati pot incident at Nagano? — the IOC’s main man ought to be impressed.
Photos by John Vandervalk of Newschoolers.com