People's History of Olympic Snowboarding

Lee Crane/Trevor Graves

Guillaume Chastagnol of France rides his way to fifth place in front of empty stands at the first Olympic halfpipe event in Nagano, Japan.

"It all ended and most of the people had gone away. Jake Burton was sitting in the stands by himself. I walked up to him and he and I sat on the bleachers alone for a minute or two looking at the course. We had a brief chat.

Do you believe what started on these icy little hills and backcountry zones and places on the side of the road; these illegal, dysfunctional, unwanted sections of the mountain that snowboarders took over and turned into parks, and pipes and lifestyles ... Do you believe we made it here?

There it was, right in front of us: The beast fully realized. Not to trivialize it, but I think it was that same kind of feeling that scientists working on the atomic bomb had. They'd achieved this remarkable scientific accomplishment and then it was: Oh my God, what wrath have we brought?" -- Brad Steward

Brad Steward is talking about the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, and the aftermath of men's giant slalom, the very first snowboarding event to make its debut at the Olympics.

A racing event was a curious way to introduce snowboarding to the global sports-fan audience in that it represented only what a small percentage of snowboarders actually did on daily basis. But it was also, in some ways, fitting.

Snowboarding, at that point in time, was a "fringe sport" born out of an alternative culture. In particular, the "freestyle" aspect of snowboarding was and is based as much in personal style as technical difficulty, and that was as difficult to judge then as it is now. Perhaps that's why the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to introduce snowboarding with a race rather than a freestyle event: Slalom was timed. It could be quantified and understood by the casual observer.

But even the culture surrounding snowboard racing, at the time, was outside the spectrum of anything the Olympics had ever seen.

"I remember going to the Olympics and getting there in Nagano and they spelled 'snowboard' wrong. ... It was just sort of one disaster after the next." Jake Burton

"We were the beginning of the modernization of the Olympic Games," says Mark Fawcett, a racing medal favorite in 1998 who is now the head coach of the Canadian National Alpine Snowboard Team. "This crazy new sport that personified nothing about high performance athletics. It was all about image and style and being wild and aggressive. Even as racers we embodied that.

"You look at a lot of [Olympic] events and ... they've been doing them the same way for 100 years. We were goofing off. Jasey [Jay Anderson] stole a full-sized snowplow and was driving it around, plowing the streets... There was partying going on that you wouldn't normally see at the Olympic Games. It was great from that perspective."

It is sometimes easy to forget that snowboarders were never consulted when the decision was made to include the sport in the Olympics. As Jake Burton said in a 2013 interview with frequency The Snowboarder's Journal, "The snowboard industry had nothing to do with the Olympics... we just heard it through the grapevine."

In fact, before the Nagano Games, Brad Steward, a pro rider in the '80s and founder of Bonfire Snowboarding, launched a lawsuit with Burton against the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team (USST).

"We thought snowboarding was going to become something where people do a set of moves to music in costume," Steward explains. "We didn't want snowboarding to become a contest that just measures flips and twists.

"There was discussion that riders would be given ten or twelve tricks to complete and whoever successfully completed those tricks the best won. We thought that's the antithesis of ... how snowboarding should be."

The lawsuit sought to create an open qualification process for American snowboarders, instead of requiring riders to participate in a full season grind of International Ski Federation (FIS) sanctioned events, akin to what is required of ski racers.

This reasoning came from snowboarding's vision of itself as less of a "sport" and more of a form of individual expression. It was the very antithesis to a traditional Olympic sport with coaches, training schedules and the like.

"One of the other things was the uniform," says Steward. "Everybody would be dressed the same and the sponsorship of the uniform would be sold by the U.S. Ski Team."

The lawsuit brought forward by Burton and Steward wasn't settled before the Nagano Olympics. But Steward didn't expect to win, he says. He just wanted the message to be heard: Snowboarders should retain control over their sport.

In that sense, the lawsuit was a success. The USST created a five-stop qualifier series known as the U.S. Grand Prix, which would allow riders to vie for spots on the U.S. Olympic team over the course of a couple months rather than a full year. So in Olympic qualification years, there would still be time to ride in non-FIS contests -- contests that were still run by snowboarders. Athletes would still be able to choose what and where they rode for the majority of the season.

Lee Crane

Jacob Soderqvist, on his way to fourth place.

In addition, riders would only have to wear the same uniform at the games, not throughout the year.

But the Olympic events would still be run by FIS. That didn't sit well with many snowboarders. Terje Haakonsen, the favorite to win halfpipe, chose not to compete. Jeff Galbraith, then working for Snowboarder Magazine, wrote a story entitled "Can We Give the Olympics Back?"

Galbraith's question was, of course, a rhetorical one. The snowboard industry hadn't been given the choice to join the Olympics or not.

"I was likening snowboarding to things like monster trucking, things that had come up endemically as pure play, and how that would translate into a coached and regimented scenario," Galbraith says. "And looking at what the FIS had done with freestyle [mogul skiing], they took something exciting and made it not exciting. Was that going to happen?"

Galbraith, for his part, was denied a press pass. "I decided to go to Nagano anyways because I can't critique or write about this unless I actually experience it," he says. "I bought good pipe tickets for $10 or $15. There were bleachers set up and less people than at a varsity football game in high school.

"It was miserable. Pouring rain, a sheet lightning storm. I can't believe they held the event in those conditions. The worst part of not having a press pass was I couldn't warm up in the press room. They had hot spiced wine."

Despite the horrid conditions, the show went on. Gian Simmen won. Many felt Daniel Franck had a better run.

"Gian's a good guy and he had good strong runs, but they weren't very polished and he was missing his grabs," Galbraith says. "The crowd was getting excited that it was over. By the time Gian threw down that last run, the crowd went ballistic and that kind of iced it for the judges. Billy Miller, who was an editor for Transworld [Snowboarding] at the time, turned to me and went, 'The fix is in.'"

Lee Crane

Jake Burton and Brad Steward, post inaugural rain event.

What the general public saw at that first Olympics wasn't snowboarding at its finest. In a way, the initial fears had come true: With FIS and the IOC controlling the Olympic snowboard events, the games weren't a proper representation of the creative culture of snowboarding. A dubious halfpipe run, at least in terms of style, earned the event's first gold medal.

"I remember going to the Olympics and getting there in Nagano and they spelled 'snowboard' wrong," Jake Burton said during a 2013 interview for frequency The Snowboarder's Journal. "They didn't even know how to spell the name of the sport. It was just sort of one disaster after the next. The halfpipe was held in driving rain... I remember being there at the pipe and [thinking], Terje knew what he was talking about."

As we enter the fifth Olympic Games to feature snowboarding, and slopestyle is preparing to make its Olympic debut, things have undoubtedly improved from that rainy halfpipe competition in Nagano. The Olympics have given snowboarding mainstream viewership and recognition it never could have achieved otherwise.

But, the general public is only exposed to a small niche of a very broad snowboard culture that runs a lot deeper than the events featured in the Olympics. And, ultimately, what people will see on television in Sochi is a quantifiable re-packaging of a creative activity -- and a version of snowboarding that feels like just another sport, instead of the deep, vibrant culture that it is.

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