Olympic officials have leaned on snowboarding for street cred ever since Ross Rebagliati and his positive marijuana test electrified the Nagano Olympics in 1998. Slopestyle is the latest snowboarding discipline that officials have tapped to attract impressionable, marketable youth.
When slopestyle makes its Olympic debut in Sochi a year from now, viewers will see an extreme sport that is already one of the top ratings draws for ESPN's X Games: athletes conquering 600 metre-long courses requiring them to glide down rails, launch off massive jumps, and spin through the air like human gyroscopes. With their carefree attitudes and Red Bull contracts, the sport's young stars – including Canadian gold-medal hopes Mark McMorris, 19, Max Parrot, 18, and Sebastian Toutant, 20 – possess the cool charisma that would fit right in on Jimmy Kimmel or the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Slopestyle could be the hottest event at Sochi, but it's also a case study – and possibly a cautionary tale – of what happens when a traditional institution like the Olympics hitches a ride on a hot new trend. The sport's Olympic entry two years ago has created a stampede of athletes angling for the limelight, including the red-headed global icon and two-time Olympic gold medalist in halfpipe, Shaun White, who wants to compete in both slopestyle and halfpipe in Sochi.
The drive for gold has pushed the sport to dizzying new levels of difficulty, but also has raised safety concerns as athletes race to keep up with trailblazers such as McMorris, a native of Regina. He continues to unleash variations on the triple cork, the new must-have trick that is three off-axis flips and four full rotations of 360 degrees.
"We just can't believe that even a few years ago, a certain combination of tricks was just unheard of," said Brandon Wong, a Canadian who will be judging halfpipe and slopestyle at the Sochi Olympics. "Now, they're commonplace."
Slopestyle's Olympic dress rehearsal, a World Cup event in Sochi scheduled for last Monday, was cancelled due to lack of snow. But even before the cancellation, riders were voicing concern about the Rosa Khutor course and others on the World Cup circuit, saying they leave too little room for creativity, and the jumps aren't big enough to allow riders to fully display their tricks.
Those complaints stem from a cultural divide. The world's best slopestyle riders are professional athletes who compete at flashy invitation-only events sponsored by brands like Red Bull and Burton. However, they will need to compete in World Cup events to qualify for the Olympics. The International Ski Federation (FIS), which runs the World Cup circuit, began offering slopestyle competitions only two years ago.
For all the innovation and hype that slopestyle could bring to Russia, there's no guarantee the sport will blossom into an Olympic favourite. Snowboarding insiders say they've seen this before: A trendy snowboarding discipline bursts onto the Olympic scene, only to fade from mainstream consciousness due to lack of training facilities and the flighty interest of young athletes and sponsors whose heads are turned by the next big thing.
"Slopestyle has a ways to go," said Jasey-Jay Anderson, the reigning gold medalist in giant slalom snowboard racing. "In such a young sport, there is no legacy. And there never will be a legacy because they're fashion-driven sports. So, like halfpipe was the cool thing in 1998, now it's almost nonexistent. Now slopestyle is the cool thing, and in 10 years, it's going to be something else."
One only need look back at snowboarding's history at the Olympics to see the pattern. Alpine racing, which launched Rebagliati to fame in 1998, is now snowboarding's nerdy cousin in North America. With its hard boots and similarities to alpine ski racing, the sport is so niche that Burton, the biggest brand in snowboards, stopped making alpine racing boards, despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee added a second racing discipline, slalom racing, for Sochi.
"At some point, I think we might see some of the alpine stuff disappear," said Seth Wescott, a two-time gold medalist in border cross. "I know from a U.S. standpoint, even our national team doesn't support it any more. And there are no kids coming up in the next generation."
Border cross, a roller-derby like sport that joined the Olympics in 2006, also appears to be stagnating among youth, in part because racers must be in areas that build and maintain the massive race courses (there are no permanent, elite-level courses in Canada). Now in its third Games, many of the medal threats in Sochi are the same athletes favoured to win medals eight years ago, including Wescott and Canada's Maëlle Ricker and Dominique Maltais, all in their 30s. The X Games, the authority on what's hot in extreme sports, dropped the sport from its 2013 schedule.
Even halfpipe, which generated the third most ticket requests at the Vancouver Olympics behind the gold-medal hockey game and the opening ceremony, is showing signs of being overshadowed by slopestyle. Both the men's and women's reigning gold medalists, White and Australia's Tora Bright, are aiming to compete in slopestyle in Sochi. Competitive drive may be behind those decisions (White dominated slopestyle before switching to halfpipe in a bid to make the Olympics), but they follow a larger trend on the mountains: Resorts aren't making halfpipes any more.
"Halfpipe has evolved into this thing where pipes are so massive and so big that we're probably at a point in Canada right now where we have more venues for ski jumping than Olympic-sized halfpipes in Canada," said Jesse Fox, managing editor of Canadian Snowboard magazine.
Rather than invest considerable money and labour building and maintaining 25-foot-tall halfpipes that only elite athletes can ride, resorts have found they can attract more riders by building terrain parks that feature big jumps and slopestyle-type features such as rails and tabletops, said Marcello Centurione, a halfpipe judge at the Vancouver Olympics.
Slopestyle has thrived because it is most accessible to the general snowboard population, Centurione said. And it is more closely related to what young riders like to do when they zip down a hill with their friends: go over obstacles, get some air, and try new tricks.
That bodes well for slopestyle's longevity, with or without the Olympics, he said.
"Having a day at the resort, you're essentially developing yourself as a slopestyle rider," Centurione said. "It's super fun, and it is definitely more connected to what snowboarding is about."