Who Killed Freeride Skiing?
Geoffrey W. Stump
We’ve been hearing about it now for years. “The Olympics are going to f%^k up the sport!” “Olympics are awesome and they will bring Slope and Pipe into the main stream.” “Freeride is supposed to be free, all competitions suck especially Olympics.”
The din from the “rabble rabble” of the tiny ski world is almost deafening. But, what is all the shouting and cursing about? We’ve seen this before. The Olympics are here and some say they’ve kidnapped our “childhood sport”. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry, cheer or boo and we don’t know where the sport is going. Sometimes it seems the Olympic madness has killed the “chill vibe” of Slopestyle and Half Pipe skiing and replaced “our skiers” with hyped up branded “super jocks.” But how did it come to this? And who is responsible for killing Freeride Skiing?
If you replace the words Freeride, Slopestyle and Half Pipe with words like Freestyle, Ballet, Moguls and Aerials, then maybe you are able to understand that this “freeride Olympic controversy” is nothing new. In fact, it is the third time around for me and other skiers of my general age range. I watched the morphing of Hot Dog Skiing into Freestyle in the early 70’s. Then the wild and crazy world of snowboarding was quickly sanitized and packaged for the Olympics. Hot Dogging was skiing with no rules, just like freeride. But, Freestyle became an Olympic Sport in 1988 and less then a decade later “freestyle refuges” started hucking “freeride” or snowboarding tricks and grinding rails. The death of the “free” style spawned the new “free” ride. Pretty soon someone had a great idea to hold a jib contest. So a few guys were paid in beers and buds to judge some of the best skiers in the area. As judging became a bigger part of the sport the competitors demanded that a “criteria” be set so that they could build a “free run” that scored well and put them on the podium. Former freeriders like Steele Spence got involved to make the judging better. They succeeded in producing good judging criteria, but did they contribute the sports demise?
The judges shouldn’t carry all the blame for killing the sport, they are just responding to the athlete’s demands. The skiers are the ones pushing the level of the sport and soon the “free” skiers are replaced by driven athletes who attend “training sessions” and a coach replaces their chill friends. Freeride programs begin to pop up at many mountains with some ex-freestyler coaching a bunch of kids. The coach boils the tricks down to a body science and encourages repetition to perfect the tricks that get the max points in the judging criteria. Walla, the trick robot is born and the death spiral is in full effect for the real “free” sport that was about personal expression on skis. I am living proof of this. I was a successful freestyle skier in the 70’s and 80’s. My early coaching career was with freestyle skiing. The “new school” movement blew my mind and I was eager to help kids learn consistency and body mechanics to help them land tricks. My main motivation was to increase skier safety through proper take offs and landings. But, I knew even then that my involvement was another step towards taming a wild sport. So, it is safe to say that Judges, Athletes and Coaches killed the sport we knew. But, would it have ever gone this far without the money to drive the competitions that fueled the competitive ambitions? After all, the contests wouldn’t be getting bigger if it was not for the sponsors. So, what role did the sponsors play?
Long before Madison Avenue paraded our “Freeski Olympians” out in the Big Apple, the Snow Sports industry and minor “fringe” sponsors gave a little money to have Freeride Skiing contests. It seemed like a great idea. Soon we had X-Games, the US Freeskiing Open and rock star skiers like Tanner Hall, Mike Douglass, Jon Olsen and Simon Dumont. We had our own magazines like Freeze and Freeskier and the coolest NewSchooler website on snow. We even had our own core brands of skis. Hell yeah, it was a skiing revolution and it was the freestyle refuges and the “skiing skate rats” that started it all. It was a re-birth of Hot Dog Skiing and we all lined up to get involved. But how can we? Competing? Coaching? Judging? Marketing? Filming? There are so many ways to kill a “free” sport and they all are so much fun. But who should bare ultimate responsibility for the demise of something we all cared about? Olympics? Yes. They did it. But how the hell did the Olympics find out about us? Oh yeah, the sport became popular because it was the coolest thing out there. Maybe. Or they watched the enormous popularity of the X-Games and they wanted a piece of the pie. But, why did the Olympics have to kill it? Perhaps they haven’t. Maybe they’ve just stunned it so they could tie it up and brand it. No, they killed the “free” and tricked the sports world into giving up our athletes and our sport to be exploited by the IOC without a cash prize. Wait. The Snow Sports Industry will get an enormous financial boost from the Winter Olympics and undoubtedly skiing will get a bump from Freeskiing and Freestyle. Come to think of it, it could translate into a good payday for the athletes too. If skiing stays financially healthy, then more kids will be out there having fun sliding down the hill and “Hot Dogging” in their own way. The kids will find some new way to be “free” on skis, a way that the jocks and the old washed up skiers haven’t thought about. So, no one can kill “free” ski. It is impossible. Like the weeds that grow up through the cracks in the concrete, the free will survive. But does that answer the central question or is it a cop out?
We’ve invested far too much to cop out now. The question of “who killed freeride skiing?” is actually not that hard to answer, it’s just hard to accept. All of us did it. The Freeskiers, The Wannabes, The Judges, The Coaches, The Sponsors, The Parents, The Training Programs, The Film Companies, The Magazines, The Ski Companies, The X-Games, USSA, FIS and The Olympics. Put a fork in it, ‘cause it’s done. But, I will thoroughly enjoy watching the high level Slope Style, Half Pipe, Snowboarding, Moguls and Aerials being performed at the Olympics this winter. We will see an unbelievable skill level from all the athletes. Each one of them will be highly trained and amazingly talented and they wouldn’t have made it there with out our support. So what’s the problem? Let’s give the world another great snow sport and have faith that the “Freeskier” will always create a new way to shine. And somewhere an old Hot Dogger will smile.