Throwback: A Brief Look at Olympic Snowboarding Before The Vancouver Games

words :: Dano Pendygrasse

10 years ago today, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics were just wrapping up. In the months leading up to the event, the entire Sea To Sky was consumed by the preparations—the highway redone, the Whistler Village went through plenty of renovations, and the corridor was buzzing with excitement. To celebrate the anniversary, we’re rolling out some of the content from The Olympic Issue, an issue dedicated to covering the games and the leadup. Originally published in the fall before the event, the following column features legendary snowboard photographer Dano Pendygrasse as he gives readers an insider’s look into the Canadian snowboard scene and their chances at Olympic hardware. Keep reading for a trip back in time! —ML

Dan Raymond airs out of the Blackcomb Pipe. Photo: Brian Hockenstein

Editor’s note : Predicting exactly who will be on the various snowboard teams is a risky endeavour – things change fast in the world of pro sports, today’s front-runner might be tomorrow’s retiree. We’ve done our best and as of publication date these were the athletes to watch for.

HISTORY AND HALFPIPE

The first time I ever tried celery and peanut butter I was 24 years old. I realize that’s a pretty late start, but to me, it always just sounded so stupid to put them together so I never tried. Around the same time, 1994, The Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) first got its grubby hands on snowboarding and it became pretty clear that my sport was headed for the big time – going to ‘the show’ as they say. Snowboarding was Olympic bound.

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A line was drawn in the sand and if you stepped onto the IOC side there were elements of the snowboard world that called you a sellout (gasp!)

I still wasn’t that keen on getting peanut butter on my celery so when it was announced that the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan would be snowboarding’s big coming-out party, I had some reservations. So did many of the sport’s most outspoken names. Norwegian legend Terje Haakonsen, who at the time was dominant in halfpipe, declared that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was no better than the mafia and that he would have nothing to do with them or their corruption. A line was drawn in the sand and if you stepped onto the IOC side there were elements of the snowboard world that called you a sellout (gasp!). Terje’s protest didn’t gain many followers, though – as the lure of the unknown proved stronger than the sure thing of being a boring protester.

Helen Schettini knows snowboarding isn’t just a sport, it’s a lifestyle. Photo :: Brian Hockenstein

Before we move on, it has to be said that snowboarding has never really been organized on the basis of nations but on the basis of sponsors. So a snowboard team would typically have representation from many countries. This suited us well because teams could be built based on real commonality between members as opposed to arbitrary lines on a map. Some notable examples of great international snowboard teams over the years include the early 1990s Burton team or the Forum 8. 

The Olympics tend to throw a wrench into how we do things. Back in ’98, as Canada started the process of picking our first Olympic halfpipe team, a bidding war broke out between Salomon and Burton for the honour of sponsoring Trevor Andrew. Trevor was a halfpipe specialist at that time and was widely believed to be a podium threat. Burton eventually signed my ginger friend and although he only managed 29th at Nagano, he did better at Salt Lake in 2002 (where he ended up 9th) and still rides for Burton to this day.

Kyle Thomas, Blackcomb pipe. Photo :: Mark Gribbon

Mike Michalchuk placed well in Nagano, finishing 8th (which still stands as the best Olympic halfpipe result for a Canadian male), while Brett Carpentier was 9th. For a few years Michalchuk was the most exciting contest rider in the world and he is one of the few snowboarders with a trick named after him. Mike brought impressive amplitude to his runs and was the first rider to land a double back flip in a contest halfpipe run. Mike was so naturally powerful as a snowboarder that he was destined to make a huge impression but he was also a shy character with a seeming inability to self-promote and when a string of injuries took him out of the game soon after the Salt Lake Olympics, he essentially disappeared.

Kevin Sansalone jibs natures podium. Photo :: Brian Hockenstein

Prior to Nagano there was a lot of grumbling from the athletes because of the need to compete in FIS sanctioned contests to qualify for the Games, even though the events were of a far inferior calibre. Many riders would do the bare minimum of FIS contests to qualify while publicly acknowledging their allegiance to snowboarding’s grassroots body, the ISF (International Snowboard Federation, now defunct). There were, however, a group of riders who chose to do all the FIS contests and come up through that system.

They could qualify for the Olympics by banging away at events all year long and winning the soft contests where none of the real halfpipe threats attended. These riders came to be known (somewhat derisively) as ‘FIS riders.’ The system has changed a bit over the years with relevant contests like the Grand Prix becoming the main Olympic qualifiers, but the FIS riders still get the lion’s share of pre-Olympic hype because they are already in the system. The casual observer might even be led to believe, due to FIS television deals and subsequent coverage of Canadian success at these B-grade events, that our guys are on the same level as Shaun and Louie and Danny and every other household-name snowboarder. In fact they are literally not even competing in the same league. 

Canada’s current halfpipe team was populated with bruisers like Brad Martin and Crispin Lipscomb who haven’t done their credibility any favours by allowing themselves, and snowboarders in general, to be portrayed as some modern “Spicolis” in the impossible-to-miss McDonald’s TV commercials, (you know the one – “Knuckledragger”.) although the commercials have run much less since Lipscomb’s mid-January decision to abandon his 2010 dreams due to “shifting priorities.”

Keith Martin goes for sunset gold. Photo :: Brian Hockenstein

Team veteran Justin Lamoureux (21st in Turin), who has maybe more 10th place finishes than anyone in the history of the sport, was first to officially qualify for the team with a couple of top 5 results in some of the early qualifier FIS contests and Jeff Batchelor who is a star of the MTV reality show Over the Bolts has shown some signs that he may have a legitimate shot at scrapping his way onto a podium soon. His top 10 result at the Mammoth Mountain Grand Prix came after qualifying 3rd and putting himself right in the mix.

Dustin Craven. Photo :: Russell Dalby

And then there is Craven – Dustin Craven to be exact. A naturally gifted shredder, Craven decided sometime last year that making a run at the Olympics might be fun. Outside of the structure and bureaucracy of Canada Snowboard he has let his riding take him where few other Canadian halfpipe riders seem to find themselves – in the top five of a top-level halfpipe contest. Craven did just that in the first Grand Prix qualifier of the season at Copper Mountain. And then he crashed in the finals. His reaction: “Today was kind of a blowout, but there’s always another pipe contest. I kind of tweaked my ankle a little bit, so a little physio, a little partying, a little hanging out with some chicks – I’ll probably feel a lot better for Mammoth.”

Now that’s my kind of snowboarder. Good enough to compete with the best and cool enough not to make a big deal about it. I hope he makes the cut, just so I can hear what comes out of his mouth next time he’s in front of international media. Another Canadian who may have an outside shot and is not part of the Canada Snowboard program is Charles Reid, who qualified 13th at Copper Mountain but failed to qualify at Mammoth.

GIANT SLALOM

The Canadians have yet to make any lasting Olympic memories in halfpipe but you know what is suited to the Olympics? Racing! Hells yes, if there is any part of snowboarding that the FIS can understand and relate to, it’s going downhill fast while dodging flags. 

When the Nagano Games finally rolled around, to most snowboarders’ surprise, halfpipe was totally eclipsed by Ross Rebagliati and Giant Slalom. You could have knocked me over with a feather. First, I didn’t know snowboarders still raced, but second, the jocks of the sideways slider world were suddenly badass, weed-smoking rebels.

Canadians have been a force in alpine events since before Ross’s gold and current alpine coach Mark Fawcett won just about everything in the run-up to the Nagano Games and was the heavy favourite to win. Mark was ahead of the field when his binding disintegrated beneath his foot and ended that story. Now he’s passing on his knowledge and his team is pretty much living on podiums this season.

In BC, this is a real gold medal run. Mark Landvik, Terrace. Photo :: Colin Adair

I think everyone will be surprised if Jasey-Jay Anderson doesn’t walk away with a medal; he’s already won gold at an FIS World Cup snowboarding event in Kreischberg this year and is the current world champion. Anderson is a relentlessly focused competitor who is at the top of his game.

Matt Morrison broke his elbow during a qualifying run in December and will be out until just before the Games, which is too bad considering he had just come off a win at Telluride and is also a medal contender. 

Gates? Rules? No thanks. Benji Ritchie can fly. Photo :: Dano Pendygrasse

And then there is Michael Lambert, who joined Anderson on the podium earlier this year and looks to be getting really good at the right time. Unfortunately, Lambert decided that it would be a good idea to put his life and neuroses on display on the MTV reality show Over the Bolts and now it’ll be hard to cheer for such a spectacle despite any sense of patriotism.

Jeff Brushie, 1992. The last time anything cool happened in Giant Slalom. Photo :: Bud Fawcett

Even though she’s been racing since the late 1990’s, Alexa Loo has been on the rise recently. She’s an experienced competitor who took a handful of Nor-Am wins last year and had a career-best bronze in a FIS World Cup at Sunday River last February. She’s starting 2010 right with a second-place and new career-best finish in the Austrian World Cup in Kreischberg. Her teammates Kimiko Zakreski and Caroline Calvé have both stepped on the FIS podium in 2009 and could make us proud when they race on the 26th of February.

SNOWBOARDCROSS

New to the Turin Olympics in 2006, snowboardcross is pretty much made for Canadians. In fact I raced in the very first one when it was invented on Blackcomb in 1991 for a Greg Stump movie. That’s back when it was called boardercross. Any self-respecting local who runs Khyber laps on Whistler all winter long is already pretty well trained for this event and I can tell you that Drew Neilson and Maelle Ricker are no strangers to those leg-burners. Maelle already reached the Olympic final once before and is ticking off wins on her way to 2010.  Dominique Maltais is one of the only Canadian snowboarders to ever stand on the Olympic podium and she’ll be looking to take a step up to the top spot. The heavy Canadian SBX team includes Mike Robertson who has wins in 2009 and could be right there in February, Rob Fagan who is coming off one of his best-ever results, a 2nd, in a December World Cup in Telluride, Francois Boivin who podiumed in Spain in March 2009, and is rounded out with veteran Tom Velisek.

Snowboardcross, inspired by roller derby. Photo :: Rich Glass

Going into our fourth Olympics, Canadian snowboarders are still not as well-funded as our southern neighbours, and most of us haven’t been raised from a zygote for the purpose of attaining Olympic glory. Maybe some of us have a different set of priorities. If for no other reason, most of my friends are looking forward to the Olympics because most of Whistler and Blackcomb will be less crowded. Powder still trumps gold around these parts. And yes, celery with peanut butter still sounds totally stupid but once I went down that road, I found out that they’re delicious together. Snowboarding and the Olympics? Well, that remains to be seen. 

Shaun White: The cost of gold

When Shaun White finally drops into the halfpipe at Cypress Mountain in February, it will be the culmination of a preposterous amount of spending in a campaign to milk every drop of exposure from the superstar. One of his major sponsors built him a private training halfpipe in the Colorado backcountry, complete with private snowcat, avalanche control helicopter and built in foam pit for trying new tricks. This expense alone is unprecedented, but it is only part of a massive effort that has put Shaun on the covers of magazines, the couches of late night talk shows, and all sorts of public relations appearances more suited to an actor or musician.

Photo :: Geoff Andruik Photography

With any ‘judged’ sport, where subjectivity can be a deciding factor, there is always a risk that the hype machine may affect the judging in the event of a too-close-to-tell tied situation. Media loves a franchise champion and Shaun has lived that story most of his life. Perception-wise, the Olympics are his to lose: he either has to fall, or get absolutely destroyed, which is what Danny Davis did to him at the Mammoth Grand Prix. Stay tuned.

 

 

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