Last week the International Olympic Committee announced it was expanding the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Korea to include big air snowboarding, a team skiing event, mixed doubles curling, and mass-start speed skating. The addition of big air snowboarding reflects the IOC's efforts to attract more overall, but also younger, viewers.
The IOC statement says that the changes were made according to the following criteria: "added value; youth appeal; attractiveness for TV, media and the general public; gender equality; minimum impact on the number of events and/or quotas; and infrastructure and operational cost and complexity."
Adding big air to the Olympics is contentious because of what it implies for the future of snowboarding. The debate is whether it's a healthy evolution or one that diverges from the sport's roots.
A big air competition is a judged event that features a single, high-angle jump that launches riders into complex aerial tricks. Big air first occurred at the International Skiing Federation (FIS) Snowboarding World Championships in 2003. Sage Kotsenburg won the snowboarding slopestyle event at the 2014 Sochi games, and he'll vie for a place in big air at the 2018 Games. But he wants to ensure the roots of snowboarding don't get lost with the addition of big air.
"As someone that's been to the Olympics, and that's been through the process of getting there, and that's won a gold medal, part of me is super excited," Kotsenburg says. "I'm also caught in the middle. I love big air. It pushes the sport of snowboarding, but I don't always agree with the ways it does. I don't want to see snowboarding turn into this thing where you just go and spin as much as possible and end up looking like a meatball flying through the air."
Kotsenburg's enthusiasm for the Olympics was probably at its lowest ever immediately prior to the 2014 games. As he says, he was over the qualification process and the hype over the contest. He nearly begged out, as his parents and coach can attest.
"And then I had this crazy realization that I didn't have to do what everyone was doing and what the judges had previously rewarding," he says. "I realized I could snowboard the way I wanted to, which is how snowboarding started. It's a rebellious, grassroots sport that's meant for you to express yourself through an activity. I went to the Olympics and just did my thing."
Kotsenburg left Sochi with a gold medal. He also inspired athletes like Ty Walker, who at 17 years old won the first-ever women's FIS big air competition in Istanbul earlier this year. She's stoked on the Olympic expansion and psyched to ride in the Pyeongchang games in 2018.
Walker feels that adding big air increases the sport's exposure and, consistent with the IOC's aim, will attract more young viewers. A large part of her inspiration to become a professional snowboarder was seeing the 2006 U.S. Snowboarding Team. Her win in Istanbul this year was "a wakeup call" that going big in big air meant more than just landing your tricks.
"I really saw that it's the performance of your trick and not just what it was that counts," she says. "Our sport is a judged sport, so hopefully in the Olympics there will be a push for creativity and style."
Yet opinions are mixed about big air's inclusion in the Olympics. Snowboarder Austin Smith, who rides for Nitro Snowboards, isn't convinced it's good for the sport.
"I get why the Olympics is trying to change," he says. "But an event like big air isn't the foundation of why myself and others, I think, started to snowboard. "
Smith, along with some other athletes, sees the Olympic venue as an overproduction of a sport that originated as a pastime enjoyed by groups of friend in the snowy mountains. The cultural trappings of the sport are part of its heritage, and the Olympics threaten to betray that heritage in exchange for the kind of viewership and money that the X Games have enjoyed.
The debate about whether the Olympics is good for snowboarding began in 1998 when snowboarding first appeared at the Nagano games. At that time, Norwegian Terje Haakonsen, one of the top snowboarders in the world and a favorite to win at the Nagano games, outspokenly boycotted the addition of snowboarding. His objection wasn't so much about the Olympics as it was about what makes snowboarding the sport it is.
"Big air already is a huck fest," he says.
Big air's biggest supporters have been organizations like the U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding Association, which submits expansion proposals to the IOC. USSA also proposed that freeskiing be included in the Pyeongchang Games, but the request was denied.Jeremy Forster, Snowboarding and Freeskiing Director of the USSA, feels that adding big air is in step with the IOC's trend to incorporate more action sports events—boardercross, half-pipe skiing, slopestyle skiing, slopestyle snowboarding, and now big air snowboarding. He credits terrain parks and halfpipes at resorts with growing snowboarding to where it is today. Having those resources available to the public means that an event like big air continues to be relevant to amateurs.
Forster, also not surprisingly, disagrees that a big air event diverges from the roots and traditions of snowboarding. Rather, he says, the creativity, style, and expression that have always been there can be maintained in Olympic competition.
"The key to this is the judging criteria and judging standards, that they regard creativity and and progression as much as they do something like rotation," Forster says. "Those elements of progression and and creativity are some of the foundations of the sport, and the judging needs that."
Kotsenburg agrees with Forster about the need for judging criteria and a format that benefits snowboarding. With big air now an Olympic sport, the opportunity is there to ensure an evolution that's faithful to the heritage of snowboarding. For his part, Kotsenburg is currently working on a proposal he'll submit to the IOC outlining a format for Olympic big air that values creativity and style as much as it does a meatball huck.
"It's easy to hate on the Olympics," he says, "but I've been there and seen it firsthand. I've seen people be inspired to snowboard. I've seen kids get stoked on it. I just want to make sure this is a healthy progression for the sport."