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The future of the Winter Olympics? More big air, less ski jumping

Among the many blighted construction projects to bedevil the Sochi Games four years ago, the ski jump was the worst.

The Russians' first attempt to build it failed when engineers realized they were working atop an underground river. Their second try went sideways because they had moved to a spot where the soil was too soft.

Builders came and went. Yet the Kremlin crony heading the project, an unfortunate sap named Akhmed Bilalov, continued to tell Vladimir Putin the ski jump would be constructed on schedule and on budget – about US$27-million.

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When it was a year-and-a-half overdue, Putin decided to come up and take a look for himself. That's when they told him the price had gone up by a factor of seven.

"1.2 billion (rubles) turned into 8 billion?" Putin reportedly said. "Well done. You're doing good work."

At that point, Bilalov decided that the smartest way to fix things was fleeing the country. He later claimed he'd been poisoned.

All that to say that no good comes of a ski jump. There are a lot of useless things in an Olympics, but it is the least useful of all.

If there is a ski jumping cognoscente, they are more obscure than the Illuminati. Probably because no one is dumb enough to ski jump.

Parents these days won't let their kids play hockey for fear of concussions. But they will tell little Jenny to put on spandex and a cardboard helmet and jump off a cliff as an after-school activity? I rather doubt it.

As with every Olympics that has ever been staged, the Pyeongchang Games went wildly overbudget. They sold the idea to South Koreans at US$9-billion. It ended up nearly twice that. And, of course, there is a ski jump.

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Up in the mountain hub, it is the most visible symbol of the Games, poking out plinth-like over a rise. Right now, with all the hubbub going on around it, it looks lovely.

I don't imagine it will look lovely in a decade when no one's up here half the year and it's falling apart. Various levels of South Korean government are already fighting over who will cover the enormous maintenance costs. If history is our guide, the final solution will be 'no one'.

The IOC's main thematic push going into Tokyo 2020 is "sustainability." I'm not sure how "hugely expensive constructions that serve no purpose" fits into that.

Since ski jumping at the 2018 Olympics is nearly complete, the Pyeongchang ski jump is hours from being obsolete. But they continue to get some use out of the stands built around it.

On Monday, they debuted the Big Air competition. Though technically snowboarding, what this actually is is a sort of ski jumping that makes sense for our waiting-on-the-polar-icecaps-to-melt times.

The "course" – it's really just a big pile of snow with a ramp leading into it – is built at the foot of the ski jump. It's made largely of scaffolding.

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This thing seems as if it required a socket wrench, a flatbed you borrowed from your brother-in-law and a few trips to Canadian Tire. It looks like it cost 50 grand. A week from now, it'll be gone.

The Big Air ramp is so DIY, the athletes have to haul their snowboards up a dozen flights of stairs to get into the chute.

"We were joking at the top that we should make this Combined Big Air," said Canadian rider Spencer O'Brien. "Your stair time combined with your score."

Though the two disciplines share the same basic idea – people on skis jumping off things – they are entirely different viewing experiences.

Ski jumping is NASCAR. It's boring and ghoulish. The only reason people watch it is in the hopes someone will crash.

Big Air is Formula 1. It's pure skill and daredevilry, with half the danger of a spectacular wreck.

When the course is running well, it is frankly bonkers to watch. I have been down on the X-Gameification of the Olympics as a general rule, but it's starting to grow on me. The best of it is like all good things – simple and fun.

A good deal of the Winter Olympic diet is viewing porridge – nutritious and bland. I refuse to believe anybody truly gets the point of Biathlon or Nordic Combined (skiing and jumping together – just like they did it in Ancient Greece).

There's nothing wrong with these sports as such, but no one cares about them. They exist only because of their Olympic gloss.

Eleven medals will be handed out in Pyeongchang for Biathlon, and only two for hockey. That doesn't make any sense, but it is the reason Biathlon still thrives.

Biathlon's saving grace is that you don't have to build a sport-specific complex to house it. All you really need is a ski trail.

The same cannot be said of ski jumping (or its cousins in the white elephant building business, the sliding sports). They require massively expensive infrastructure that makes sense in very few places.

Why does the IOC continue on like this? Inertia and influence.

(Many suspect the reason a cheap, popular sport like wrestling was (briefly) eliminated from the Summer Games instead of an expensive, unpopular one like modern pentathlon is that Juan Antonio Samaranch's son is a pentathlon booster.)

But perhaps a ready-made alternative in their midst might change minds.

If it needed to show well, Big Air did the job on Monday. Conditions were perfect; the crowd was frothing; the top of the field was unusually pan-national. Afterward, the athletes said it was the most technically ambitious women's Big Air program ever staged.

Canada did well, too – slopestyle silver medalist Laurie Blouin qualified fourth; O'Brien eleventh.

As she was chatting about it afterward, one of O'Brien's competitors came flipping over the lip of the hill.

"Just one sec," O'Brien said. "I want to watch this. It was really sick."

And after the replay: "Oh my gosh, that was so dope."

No human in history has ever thought that, never mind said it, after watching ski jumping.

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