Top Riders Choose U.S. Open Instead of Earning Olympic Spots

Three top US professional snowboard athletes have decided against attending the Finals of the FIS World Cup of Snowboarding, the last major FIS event of the winter season. A likely outcome of this decision will be that the US will only be able to send one man to the Olympics for the halfpipe event, rather than the four or five men many other countries will be sending.

There is a scheduling conflict in the second week of March, 2001, between a high-points FIS event (new to the calendar this year), and the sport’s oldest and most prestigious event, the ISF-sanctioned US Open (on the calendar for 19 years).

Given the current state of the FIS world rankings, 1998 Olympic Bronze Snowboarding Halfpipe medalist and US Open Halfpipe champion Ross Powers, Shaun White, and Keir Dillon were confronted with a difficult choice. Go to Ruka, Finland, for the last major FIS event and quietly earn the US a possible three more men’s halfpipe slots at the 2002 Winter Olympics, and perhaps go on to qualify for and then win an Olympic medal. Or compete at one of the most important events on the snowboard calendar, the US Open at Stratton Mountain, Vermont—in front of a global audience—and build their careers.

Individually, each came to the conclusion that pursuing a title at the US Open was more important. Collectively, this makes a statement about what’s wrong with the system that snowboard athletes must endure to get to the Olympics: In attempting to secure a monopoly in snowboard event sanctioning and sponsorship sales, the FIS has benched some of the best riders in the world—many of them American.

Many riders, the rider-backed ISF, and the snowboarding industry have long argued that the IOC/skiing-backed FIS system hurts the riders and the sport. Riders have to put aside their careers. The ISF loses riders from their tour. Sponsors must put aside their promotion of the athletes and the sport.

FIS places athletes in locations far from their home markets, hurting their ability to build notoriety and respect, and earn a living through sponsorship. “I chose the Open over Ruka Finland, the final FIS event because a win at the Open has way more impact on my career,” says Keir Dillon. “I have to think about the ISF tour sponsors, and my own sponsors, too. Finland isn’t high on their agenda, either. Nobody will remember what I did that weekend in March if I go to Finland. Everybody remembers the Open.”

To get to the Olympics, athletes have to miss major ISF events to chase after FIS points. This puts athletes in halfpipes of inconsistent quality, hurting their performance (and perhaps even themselves). “The FIS tour was really inconsistent this year, quality-wise,” says Ross Powers. Powers, a bronze medalist and US Open champion, didn’t even qualify for the finals at a recent FIS event. But tour loyalty is the name of the game, even if it means obvious strikes against the ISF. “The US Open has occupied this weekend for 19 years,” says event organizer, Barry Dugan. “I’m sure if they could, they’d move the Olympics on top of our weekend, too”

Still, it was a tough choice. “Powers already has a medal. Shaun’s only 14—he’s got a few more Olympics to shoot for if he wants to. But Keir’s choice was probably the hardest. On the other hand, if he wins the quarter pipe at the Open, he’ll know he did the right thing,” says Burton Team Manager, Vince LaVecchia. Managing a group of riders all season, and tracking the various rankings and points totals, has been a consuming task—but it was known several weeks ago that a crunch for FIS points at the end of the season was likely. “I think if these guys really cared about the Olympics, they would have made different decisions earlier in the season, and it wouldn’t have come to this,” says LaVecchia, “I think this shows the FIS tour and the Olympics don’t really matter that much to a lot of riders. Snowboarding isn’t about what country you’re from, anyway.”

A little historySnowboarding has its own sanctioning body, the International Snowboarding Federation (ISF), which has been sanctioning tours since the early 90’s. When snowboarding was announced as a new event in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, skiing’s sanctioning body, the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS), was granted jurisdiction by the International Olympic Committee to sanction Olympic snowboard competition. The snowboarding community was outraged; a sanctioning body composed of skiers, not snowboarders, was suddenly in charge of the Olympic component of the sport.

Since then, many claim the FIS has done everything in its power to supercede the ISF as the ruling snowboarding sanctioning body. “For the FIS, it’s a matter of economic survival. With snowboarding dominating the youth demographic (and the attention of sponsors attempting to speak to them), the FIS needs to own a sole, global snowboarding tour, to offset declining event participation, viewership, and sponsor revenues on the skiing side,” says Burton Snowboards VP of Marketing, David Schriber.

A major weapon in the FIS’ arsenal is the Olympic qualification process. Currently the FIS employs three tactics regarding the Olympics: quota, qualification, and a minimum points standard.

QuotaThe process of “quota” determines the number of athletes a country may send to the Olympics (and theoretically, the chances at and number of medals a country can hope to win). By relying solely on the FIS world rankings (and ignoring athletes’ results on the established, rider-supported ISF tour), riders must compete on the FIS world tour to win their country enough points to earn slots at the Olympics.

The world FIS ranking takes an athlete’s top two FIS results, in points, and averages them. All athletes are ranked by this average. Starting with the number one points-holder, each country earns a slot (with a maximum of four) as its athletes appear down the list, until all slots are granted. Currently, the number of slots is fewer than those needed for all participating nations to send 4 athletes. This does not necessarily have to be the case, but the FIS has not attempted to remedy this situation. “The quota process is good for the FIS,” says Dugan, “it means riders have to go to FIS events—so their events are better attended and easier to sell to sponsors.”

For the 2002 games, the FIS points situation makes only one American slot a likelihood.Riders were particularly loyal to the ISF tour this year. In fact, ISF points were used, the US would have four (or more) Olympic slots. US riders Ron Chiodi, Danny Kass, J. J. Thomas, Todd Richards, Ross Powers, and Shaun White (in ascending order) are all ranked in the ISF top 20 as of March 7, the latter three riders in the top 10. “The ISF tour isn’t considered to be that strong in the US,” says Dugan, “so the US rider rankings are significant—they went up against the world and delivered.”

QualificationBut these are just slots at the games; the athletes themselves must then compete against all others in their home nation to go to the Olympics. This occurs within the home nation’s qualification system.

Most countries conformed with the IOC decision to consider snowboarding a discipline (or subset) of skiing (“Kind of like considering ice hockey a discipline of figure skating,” says Jake Burton of Burton Snowboards). Thus the national governing bodies in most countries (loyal to and sanctioned by the FIS) took over the qualification process. This becomes another reason an athlete must attend FIS events. (Note that there is nothing to prevent a national governing body from using “coach’s” choice (e.g. arbitrary) athlete selection, rather than fair and open competition, in which case one must really be loyal to the FIS).

In the US, the qualification is the FIS-sanctioned Grand Prix, operated by the United States Skiing Association (who added “and Snowboarding” after “Skiing” four years ago, but has not changed their acronym, U.S.S.A.). There will be 5 Grand Prix events next
fall, some or all of them will qualify the US athletes for the 2002 games. Every four years the Grand Prix events become very well-attended by the top US riders. This time around, with potentially only one men’s halfpipe slot for which riders will be competing, the field may be thin.

MinimumsOne would expect that should a nation earn the quota slots, and qualify an athlete under its qualification, the rider would be then on his/her way to the games. Not so fast. FIS imposes a points minimum on all athletes in order for them to compete in the games.

It’s very possible for an athlete to get there without FIS points. First a rider’s countryman earns a slot by getting the necessary results on the FIS world ranking. Second, the rider competes in a home nation’s system, as in Norway, that is not FIS. (US athletes do not have this option, nor do most countries’ riders.) Even this rider must then travel and compete on the FIS tour to earn 120 points.

If FIS had been able to get its way at the IOC congress in Sydney last year, a rider would have had to compete at a total of 5 FIS events in a specified period of time leading up to the games, too. “Clearly, these rules are designed to force loyalty to the FIS tour onto riders, and defeat countries who choose to have a non-FIS NGB National Governing Body, the group that determines Olympic qualifications” says Schriber. “There is no way to get to the Olympics without participating in the for-profit global FIS tour—often at the price of one’s career and savings.”

The future?The decisions of these three follow the sport’s top rider, Terje Haakonsen (Norway), who turned down his country’s invitation to ride at the 1998 games, and subsequently declared he would be going to no future Olympics. Controversy dogged the ’98 games during and after, as well. The Snowboarding Halfpipe event was run in a lightning storm while the concurrent Men’s Downhill Skiing event was cancelled due to the same storm. Officials watered down the Snowboarding Giant Slalom event (a common practice in skiing-not snowboarding), resulting in numerous crashes, including all top 6 men racers. And confusion over the rules regarding performance-enhancing drugs deprived the men’s GS winner of his medal ceremony, and delayed the awards for the women’s halfpipe for 24 hours while officials waited for the women (in quarantine) to produce “more suitable urine samples.”

Yet the FIS’ grip on the sport shows no signs of weakening. Thus a sport invented and pioneered in the US, represented today by top athletes from the US, at a Winter Olympics held in the US, in a discipline invented in the US, will likely field only one American man. Says Jake Burton, “Maybe this time around more people will see what Terje saw in 1998: a system imposed on our sport that does not work. It’s time to let the riders, not the skiers, determine their own future.”