Saturday, February 15, 2014

MTVP Sochi 2014 Olympics Coverage: Some Thoughts on Snowboarding

So snowboarding wasn’t really something that I mentioned as a sport I thought I might cover when I wrote about the opening ceremony for these Olympics. It turns out, though, that the sport (in several permutations) has dominated the coverage this week, so I have thoughts! We’ve seen two major snowboarding events this week. First was “slopestyle,” a new event for Sochi, and the other was the more familiar half-pipe. Snowboarding in general has tended to be a fairly American-dominated event, although in the men’s halfpipe this year, no Americans medaled. Not to fear, though, we had plenty of representation among the slopestyle and women’s half-pipe medalists! In fact, commentators are now crediting Team USA’s success in snowboarding and freestlye skiing with preserving the competitiveness of our overall medal count (which is otherwise kind of disappointing…I’m looking at you speed skaters/short trackers!).

Slopestyle, as I mentioned, is a new Olympic sport this year in Sochi, and it dominated the television coverage for the first few days. It combines snowboarding down a slope with doing freestyle tricks. There are a couple rails for the snowboarders to ride and a few huge jumps for the more impressive tricks. It’s quite a visual spectacle, with athletes flipping and spinning high in the air on the biggest jumps. I don’t really bother with watching the X Games, so I had never seen slopestyle before. There are points during which the athletes are riding backwards down the hill, and it’s kind of crazy to watch. Actually, to diverge from snowboarding for a minute, slopestyle is even more impressive looking when performed by the freestyle skiers. It’s even more obvious that they’re skiing backwards half the time (and we did especially well in those events, winning five medals). Team USA took gold in both the men’s and women’s slopestyle events, with Sage Kotsenberg winning for the men and Jamie Anderson winning for the ladies.

I find snowboarder culture (or at least the bit of it I’ve seen through following the Olympics) to be as interesting as the sport itself (which snowboarders would probably find insulting, but hey, part of the Olympics is getting to know the people and cultures in addition to the sports). It’s pretty clear that snowboarder culture has grown out of skateboarding culture, complete with its own vocabulary. I think I heard the word “stoked” more times in one hour of snowboarding coverage than I have since my teenage years in the late 1990’s-early aughts. Several Team USA snowboarding athletes caused a bit of a stir earlier this week when the criticized the condition of the slopestyle course and the halfpipe. There were unquestionably issues with slopestyle that needed to be resolved, as several athletes had been injured in practice runs. The halfpipe was a little more of a gray area. It wasn’t dangerous, but several athletes argued that it was a little slushy, and not of the quality they would expect for the Olympics. This interesting article from Slate provides a little more of the background behind some of the reasons there may have been unhappiness about the facilities.

The only area of snowboarding that was at all a disappointment for Team USA was the men’s halfpipe. The big story from that event was that “flying tomato” Shaun White was going to be riding in his third Olympics. His Olympic debut was was in the 2006 Torino Games, and he won gold in both those Olympics and the 2010 Vancouver Games. White is a fierce competitor (as we would generally expect of elite athletes of his caliber), and if you believe this article, that focus on winning is kind of at odds with snowboarding culture overall. Personally, I respect the focus and time devoted to perfecting his craft, but I’m a pretty type-A, driven person myself. White was originally set to compete in both slopestyle and halfpipe, but after having some issues in slopestyle practice, he withdrew from that event to focus on halfpipe. Unfortunately, the additional focus did not have the desired effect. White finished fourth, just out of medal reach. The gold medal winner was Swiss rider Iouri Podladtchikov.

The women’s halfpipe final was a lot more exciting (in a positive way) for those of us rooting for Team USA. In the mix in the final were three tough American ladies – Kaitlyn Farrington, Kelly Clark, and and Hannah Teter. Two of these ladies had won gold in previous Olympics, Clark in Salt Lake City and Teter in Torino. Also in the mix was Australian Torah Bright, gold medal winner from Vancouver. I was rooting for Clark, mostly because she’s thirty like me, and I thought it was awesome that she’s still competing at such a high level in her fourth Olympics (she didn’t medal in Torino and won bronze in Vancouver). It was twenty-four-year-old Farrington who took home the gold, however. Her enthusiasm was infectious, so I couldn’t begrudge her the win, even though gold medalists with names like Sage and Kaitlyn make me feel old. Bright won silver and Clark won bronze, so I was pleased that Clark was still a medalist. It’s funny how different sports can be from so many other career paths. At thirty, Clark’s (first) career is winding down, while I’m just starting to see some real success in my own.

There’s one more type of snowboarding event that we haven’t gotten to yet in these Olympics, and that’s snowboard cross. Snowboard cross debuted as an Olympic sport in the 2006 Torino Games. This particular permutation of snowboarding competition involves four racers at once going down an inclined course and doing tricks on the features placed throughout the course. The women’s competition takes place tomorrow, and the men ride on Monday. For the women, American Lindsey Jacobellis and Canadian Dominique Maltais will be in the medal hunt. Both have been in the upper echelons of the sport for the past decade, and both won medals in Tornio, but the gold medal has eluded them. Showing some crossover power, Australian Torah Bright will also be competing in the event. I’m looking forward to watching it for sure.

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