Will halfpipe freeskiing steal snowboarding’s thunder?

Justin Dorey
Canadian Justin Dorey brings the kind of boosted, tweaked-out grabs that will catch the crowd’s attention in Sochi. Photo by Christian Pondella/ESPN Images

Halfpipe snowboarding has been the cool kid of U.S. Olympic sports since it was inaugurated in 1998. It was novel compared to events like alpine skiing, and we had perpetual winner Shaun White to root for. But this year, now that freeskiing is on the big stage, skiers, with their bigger amplitude, more-complicated grabs, and tougher-looking switch tricks, might steal the show from snowboarders.

It’s hard to resist weighing skiing against snowboarding, given that both breeds of athletes compete in the same venue, but a direct comparison is kind of unfair. Even on the same halfpipe, the way riders approach the course, because of their different stances, is significantly different. A lot of it is physics, and biomechanics, which can impact how different athletes use their momentum.

Technically, skiers can go faster and farther. For instance, the downhill speed record for a skier is 156 mph; for a snowboarder, it’s 125 mph. Skiers hold the record for highest air out of a quarterpipe, too. Simon Dumont hit 35 feet in a pipe in Maine. Snowboarder Terje Haakonsen had held the previous record of 32.5 feet.

There’s also the matter of having four effective edges instead of one (not to mention poles). Skiers typically come down from tricks more balanced than their one-plank brethren. Snowboarders, because they have to carve to regain balance, often lose momentum in the bottom of the pipe. If they land smoothly, skiers can carry their speed through the transition. They go bigger in each trick, too, and propel themselves farther down the pipe. That has some disadvantages, however: Most snowboarders can link up six tricks in a run, while skiers usually have room for only five.

Lyman Currier
Lyman Currier (USA), showing some style in Sochi pipe practice; photo via Instagram

“When you have that independent foot action and the four edges of the skis that you’re working with, your poles and whatnot, you can generate speed in different ways than you can with just one single edge,” U.S. freeski and snowboard team coach Mike Jankowski recently told The New York Times. “You can push and pump in different ways than you can in snowboarding. If you land a little bit funky on your skis, you can recover more easily and generate that speed more quickly.”

So what’s going to happen in the men’s ski pipe finals? Is it going to look significantly different? Possibly, especially because the snowboarding judges in Sochi scored athletes high for style and paid less attention to amplitude and rotation. In men’s snowboarding, Swiss rider Iouri Podladtchikov won on the strength of his YOLO flip, a double cork 1440. A lot of doubles were thrown, but hardly anyone was incorporating a triple. In skiing, which, as a sport, has more to prove at these Games, we’re likely to see bigger tricks and more spins. Many of the skiers have triples in their runs and have been hinting that they’re working on more, so it won’t be surprising if they show up in Sochi. Skiers like David Wise and Kevin Rolland, who tend to win, are known for their technical precision more than their style, so it’s a safe bet to assume that they’ll be going big.

It’s going to be exciting to watch. After Shaun White’s much-publicized demise in snowboard halfpipe, ski pipe could garner more attention.

Men’s ski halfpipe debuts at the Sochi Olympics Tuesday, Feb. 18, at 5:45 p.m. local time. A complete viewers’ guide is available through NBCOlympics.com.

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