By Jonathan Van Elslander
Photos by Mike Dawsy
If you didn’t see it, you’ve seen the stories. The debacle that was the two most interesting, most respected of the men’s Olympic snowboarding events. Twenty four years on from the first Olympic snowboarding and we’re left with more bitter aftertaste caused by the International Ski Federation (FIS), who manage the Olympic snowboarding events, and their judging.
Of course, the knee grab. Though it was the most incendiary moment, it needs to be said the judges just plainly didn’t see it (thanks to the pathetic video feed the IOC provided to them). Even more egregious, however, was how the judges messed up what they did see. Upon laying down the most impressive run of the day, one that had everyone cheering, Mark McMorris was left with another, bitter, bronze medal.
Then, on Friday, after landing arguably the greatest halfpipe run ever, Ayumu Hirano was awarded an underwhelming 91.75 and left in second place. On NBC, Todd Richards rightfully lost his mind. In Canada on the CBC, Craig McMorris was genuinely confused. In slopestyle, the judges got unlucky. By missing Max Parrot’s knee grab, they somehow stole the gold medal from not one but two deserving riders in McMorris and Su Yiming. But in halfpipe, the judges got lucky. Hirano landed the run again and gave them the opportunity to give him his gold.
This year’s fiasco revived that long-held conversation, one of the most acrimonious in snowboarding. Why do we put up with the Olympics’ bullshit? Why don’t the riders boycott? Many of us think it every four years: leave the Olympics to spandex-clad athletes, who though impressive, are obviously on a separate plane from what we call snowboarding.
It’s often said that the Olympics need snowboarding (the IOC scheduled snowboarding on North American primetime TV every night) more than snowboarding needs the Olympics. And it’s true that we have decades of history in the form of snowboard videos and our own contests; we have our own self-driven culture, and now we have another competitive alternative in Natural Selection. But while in theory I agree, on the heels of the Jackson Hole stop of the Natural Selection tour, I can’t help but pause. First, Olympic snowboarding is 24 years old, and has been around for all of the meteoric rise, eventual fall, and gradual recovery of snowboarding as a popular mainstream sport. But secondly, and more importantly, it would appear that only men’s snowboarding has no need for the Olympics.
Let’s start with ripping pro snowboarder, Winnipegger, and the only person who ever managed to quantifiably hold the world of video-based snowboarding to account, Darrah Reid-McLean. A few years ago, Reid-McLean went through her impressive stack of snowboard videos, about 100 films, and counted the women’s parts. In the end there were less than ten. As she said, assuming there are ten parts per video, that’s an estimated 1,000 video parts. Eight or nine women. Less than one percent. Meanwhile, at the Olympics, of the 238 spots for snowboarders, 119 went to men and 119 went to women.
I first noticed contest snowboarding is more integral to women’s snowboarding than most men tend to think while watching Natural Selection. Browse the brackets from two years in Jackson Hole. With a few notable exceptions (Blake Paul, Jared Elston, Chris Rasman, Robin Van Gyn), the Jackson event has been dominated by reformed contest jocks. In both 2021’s primo and 2022’s terrible conditions, riders like Sage Kotsenburg, and Ben Ferguson repeatedly looked the most comfortable and put down the best runs. In the women’s bracket, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott cruised to victory in 2021, while in 2022 Elena Hight proved the rider most able to navigate the sunbaked course.
And it’s the comparison of the 2022 champions that made me think the most. Both Hight and Kotsenburg have wholly made the transition from contest champion to certified backcountry rippers. But there’s a difference there. Sage was fully supported on his transition to the backcountry not long after his 2014 Olympic gold, at just 20 years old. Hight, meanwhile, didn’t make a similar transition until she was in her mid-20s when she was featured in Full Moon. (Hight was 27 in 2016 when it was released). The history of men’s backcountry snowboarding is spoiled with contest converts—Travis Rice, Torstein Horgmo, Danny Davis, along with Kotsenburg, McMorris, and Ferguson. 2018 Olympic slopestyle men’s gold medalist Red Gerard isn’t far behind, featuring heavily alongside Kotsenburg and Ferguson in 2019’s Joy. (Gerard was 19 upon its release). But besides Hight, and GOAT contender Jamie Anderson, few women have been afforded the same opportunity at such a transition.
Meanwhile, 10 years ago, at the young age of 18, McMorris was given an invite to Travis Rice’s Supernatural contest at Baldface. Not long after, McMorris began filming in the backcountry. After more contest success, he was soon aided in his filming by friends and teammates who showed him the ropes. But back then, there was no women’s Supernatural. There was no established crew of female snowboarders with years of snowmobile experience ready to teach Jamie Anderson or Elena Hight the same thing.
The thing is, to “make it,” that is to pay the bills, to accumulate the “cheddar bisc” as the old heads say, women snowboarders are, relative to men, much more reliant on contests. This is deeply ingrained in our culture. Many of the most famous female snowboarders, such as two-time parallel giant slalom gold medalist Ester Ledecká, or decorated snowboard cross powerhouse Lindsey Jacobellis, rely entirely on competition for their career, with the racing disciplines that have no obvious parallel in the world of snowboard videos. But a similar idea is there for halfpipe and slopestyle. For all the good a women-led snowboard video like Full Moon did for snowboarding, Jamie Anderson’s career has been dramatically more tethered to her competitive snowboarding than her video parts.
But let’s talk about the most uplifting part of the 2022 Olympic snowboarding: the women’s events. In halfpipe we got to watch the ascendency of Chloe Kim, a snowboarder at a dominant level not seen since Shaun White’s peak years and an inspiring and well-deserved silver medal for Queralt Castallet. In slopestyle Julia Marino and Tess Coady pushed the boundaries of the course.
But for me, the most enduring moment of 2022’s Olympic snowboarding—even more so than Ayumu’s triple cork or Kaishu Hirano’s method (which, I should say, should be put in museums)—was Sadowski-Synnott going full Mikey Leblanc to the bottom of the landing on a 70-foot jump. An aggressive stomp that happened to cap off a double cork so well executed and so stylish that it wouldn’t have seemed possible five years ago. And it’s with Sadowski-Synnott that I think the beginning of an answer for our future lies. We can’t move on from the Olympics, until we, men’s and women’s snowboarding, are ready to. Thankfully, in 2021 Sadowski-Synnott got that same opportunity McMorris did 10 years ago. At a young age, she was given the chance by Rice and Co. to prove she could land her tricks into powder. And I’m sure we all remember how that went.
It's Sadowski-Synnott’s power and presence on her snowboard that spells out a direction we could take. She, and every female snowboarder, should be given the exact same opportunity McMorris, Kotsenburg, Ferguson, and Gerard have been given—the opportunity to be supported riding beyond contests. It’s a very easily visible future where in the next 10 years Sadowski-Synnott wins another couple Olympic medals and films a backcountry part or two. The only thing in the way is the brands with the resources. If Burton wants to really put its money where its mouth is, she should be given a snowmobile, a blank check for a film crew, and some mentorship with some fellow Burton riders on how to film a backcountry part.
If we choose to do so, if we want to, we can leave the Olympics behind. Leave it for the “snowboard companies” more famous for making tennis rackets and $5,000 handbags than for making snowboards. But only if women’s snowboarding is afforded equal opportunity. For the real snowboard companies: goddamnit, pay those women to snowboard however, and wherever, they want. The history of women’s Olympic snowboarding yields a long, long list of amazing riders who have more than paid their dues. They should be given the same opportunity to ride professionally after their contest days are done that the men are. Who doesn’t want to see Castallet put down that beautiful corked Cab 7 in the backcountry on a big natural takeoff? How about Marino lacing some of her stylish front lip pretzels in Minneapolis or Stockholm instead of another year in Aspen? And for the love of god, whenever and wherever Zoi Sadowski-Synnott wants to clear entire landings, give her the chance! Hopefully it will be on a wedge in the backcountry with the world of snowboarding, not the world of sports, watching.