Jeremy Evans is the author of In Search of Powder, a book on ski and snowboard culture. He lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.
While the first headlines for the 2014 Winter Olympics were focused on security issues—and rightfully so—less has been made about the 12 events making their debut in Sochi, Russia. That’s unfortunate since U.S. athletes are serious gold-medal contenders in the events Olympics organizers added to help capture a younger demographic: ski halfpipe, ski slopestyle, and snowboard slopestyle.
In ski halfpipe, David Wise and Maddie Bowman are gold medal favorites in the men’s and women’s competitions, respectively. Wise, of Reno, Nevada, is a three-time defending Winter X Games champion, while Maddie Bowman is a two-time defending X Games champion. The annual event held in Aspen, Colorado, is considered the sport’s premier event—unless it’s an Olympic year.
“It’s definitely a bigger stage but people don’t know what to think about us yet,” said 20-year-old Bowman, who lives in the Lake Tahoe area. “With the Olympics, you never know how they are going to portray our sport. We’re kind of the new kids, but it’s exciting. I can only speak from my past experience but the only time I think I’m going to barf is when I am about to drop in at X Games. I kind of feel that way already, so I can feel a difference.”
The belief is ski halfpipe and snowboard/ski slopestyle will attract a new demographic similar to the one started when snowboarding was added in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
That year, snowboard halfpipe and snowboard giant slalom became Olympic events, although the sport suffered from an inauspicious start. Some snowboarders didn’t participate; others didn’t wear team uniforms at meals in an act of rebellion, and Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliaiti was stripped of his gold medal in giant slalom for testing positive for marijuana. Rebagliati appealed the decision and eventually was awarded his medal. Since then, snowboarding has become a main Olympic attraction.
In 2010, the men’s snowboard halfpipe event drew more than 30 million U.S. viewers. It helped the sport’s biggest star, Shaun White, was participating. White, a two-time gold medalist in halfpipe, is expected to also challenge for the inaugural men’s snowboard slopestyle competition in Sochi.
“Involving freeskiing in the Olympics will bring a younger, fresher, edgier feel to the Olympics, similar to how snowboarding halfpipe did,” pipe and slopestyle skier Gus Kenworthy told ESPN.com. “I'm eagerly awaiting the 2014 Games and can't wait to see what the incorporation of freeskiing will do both for the Olympics and for our sport.”
In 2011, the International Olympic Committee announced it was adding ski halfpipe to the list of official events (slopestyle was added later). Halfpipe athletes are awarded points for clean runs showcasing amplitude and trick difficulty along 20-foot-high walls; slopestyle judges also score on the cleanliness of runs but athletes must navigate a downhill course highlighted by metal boxes and rails and large jumps. Both events are marquee events at Winter X Games, but it’s unclear how either will be received this month.
Bob Costas, the voice of NBC Sports’ Olympics coverage, compared slopestyle to the MTV show "Jackass." Bowman, however, thinks viewers will accept both events, partly because of their aerials and tricks, but also because of athletes.
“Since we’re so separate from the original Olympic sports and the ones that have been around a while, it does (feel like we’re outliers). But I think once everyone watches us and what we’re about, they will be sold. I think they will love it. We’re all competitive people. But honestly, we’re not competitive towards each other like you see in other sports. We are more competitive against ourselves, to do our best run as oppose to beating each other. That is something that is really unique to our sport, and specifically girls’ halfpipe. And it’s not a fake friendly, we are all real friends.”
For a breakdown of the debut events, read here.