Riding the Beast
Has Snowboarding Lost its Soul?
By; Chris Karol
The question made me nauseous. The woman from the New York Times had somehow gotten my mobile number and just asked me if snowboarding had in fact “lost its soul”. The year was 1997. I was a passenger, speeding over Vail Pass on my way to Europe. The athletes I was coaching would be battling it out on the World Cup tour, competing for a chance to represent the USA in Nagano, Japan. Snowboarding was about to become an Olympic sport. And here I was, trading with the enemy. I didn’t want to talk about it, I responded grimly. “Snowboarding doesn’t have a soul...it’s just a sport.” That’s not what she was after.
A racer at heart, my competitive fire had been doused four years earlier. I had been an A-Team rider for the world’s largest snowboard company, Burton Snowboards. It was fun, but I was done. My final race had taken place at the Op Pro in February of 1993 at June Mountain, California, finishing 2nd in Giant Slalom. That was good enough for me. Having invested my youth in snowboarding, I now had to find a new way to give back to the sport which had given me a life. There was lot’s to do. Television and magazine coverage for alpine-snowboarding had been dwindling. Snowboarding’s freestyle community had flipped the middle finger to alpine-snowboarding and sponsor opportunities were drying up. Even worse, the entire sport of snowboarding had just been ambushed by the International Olympic Committee and it's partners in crime, the Federation International de Ski and the United States Ski/Snowboard Association.
I had loved racing and been at the top of my game but I was willing to put it behind me. Love and a sense of accomplishment lured me to pasture. Snowboarding itself had been my dream. Olympic dreams of snowboarders around the planet had now become reality. New worlds of opportunity had been created for ourselves and every other snowboarder on the planet. It felt good. Even better, I had fallen in love with a beautiful woman. No way I was about to jump in bed with the Federation of Skier’s who had just stolen snowboarding’s most valuable commercial rights through a backdoor deal with the International Olympic Committee. It was time to move on. But four years later my world had changed, the love was lost. I found myself pondering my future once again when alpine snowboarding returned, offering me a new lease on life.
In a previous life snowboarders had created our own International Snowboard Federation to represent, serve and protect the interests of the snowboarding community. We created our own events and built our own World Cup tour spanning three continents throughout Japan, Europe and North America. Each nation had a national championship series with corresponding professional snowboarders’ associations. Riders qualified for the World Cup by rising up through their nations ranking and quota systems. It worked. Major corporate sponsors fought for the snowboarder demographic. Competing pro-tours offered substantial prize money. Renegade magazines and television networks jockeyed for position with primetime coverage. Independent riders and industry-supported teams flourished, each with their own unique personalities and style. This was snowboarding. But now it was finished. Victims of our own success, we had willingly walked into the den of the Beast.
Competitive snowboarders, through our commitment and love for the sport were on the path towards making our Olympic dreams come true. Talks to have the sport represented in the 1994 Norwegian Cultural Exhibition were a step in the right direction if not misguided. The festivities were about to begin when the three headed Beast suddenly appeared. Call it the Vampire-Wolf-Squid if you will but by the time the curtains lifted the International Skiing Federation had taken full control over Olympic snowboarding.
The Beast had caught snowboarding on its heel-edge, spinning a late 180 and going for the throat. Tearing out the artery that had given life to the sport before lashing out with its Squid like tentacles, snatching outstretched arms of the fallen snowboarders, reeling them in, then ramming its blood funnel into the sport, effectively sucking the blood out of snowboarding and placing it on life support to feed the International Olympic Committee. Likening the IOC and it's partners in crime to infamous Wall Street critic Matt Taibbi’s analogy, “The world’s most powerful investment bank wrapped around the face of [snowboarding] relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smelled like money.” Snowboarding, master of its own universe, created and built by snowboarders, was left for dead standing in its tracks. The lives of snowboardings pioneers held in the balance.
Snowboarding’s place in the food chain became clear in a heartbeat. Olympic snowboarding now demanded obedience to the Beast. Pundits jabbered. Snowboarding had read its own press, believing we had earned our place at the table, but the cruel reality became clear when the spotlights snapped on. Snowboarding had been shepherded straight into the Vampire’s den by its worst rivals. There we were, blinded by the spotlight’s glare. The feast smelled like success until snowboarders realized what was for dinner. Held hostage and exposed to the world, riders who could afford the ransom ran for their lives.
Suddenly fueled by a media explosion, snowboarding was on fire with increasingly lucrative endorsements and industry support. Alpine-snowboarders got left to burn in the blaze. Backcountry boarders began looking for their soul. New alpine-snowboarders were drawn to the fire, greasing the gullet of the Beast as it warmed up for the main course. When the USSA held their first team tryout in 1994 it was an alpine-snowboarding competition. Self-respecting freestyle-snowboarders wouldn’t have been caught dead near it.
Growing lack of media attention for alpine-snowboarding had only added to the mounting frustrations found in the competitive endorsement world. Alpine wasn’t cool. Nevermind that alpine-snowboarding represented the most objective competitive format. freestyle-snowboarding had become all about media exposure and money. At least the skier Federation and its Governing bodies seemed to appreciate alpine-snowboarding and support it. And support it they did, until the Beast was able to choke down the rest of the sport.
Bloated, the Beast sat silent, fat on the scales of justice. Indigestion boiled. By the time I found myself dodging the New York Times reporter, I had returned to the sport to become an alpine-snowboarding coach for the US arm of the Squid. It was a mixed blessing but things had changed. Snowboarding’s own International Federation had since lost its primary tour sponsor and gone bankrupt. The snowboard industry had jumped ship and was now in bed with the Beast. But there was one notable exception.
Terje Haakonsen, arguably the world’s best snowboarder at the time, made international headlines boycotting the Olympics. It was a bold statement. Terje had been a shoe-in for the gold medal in snowboarding’s premier event. Burton Snowboards, his sponsor, stood behind him all the way. But what did they really stand to gain from boycotting? Burton is like the Goldman Sachs of snowboarding, a leader in their field and a master of their domain. The corporate giant, a symbol of dominance in the fiercely independent sport of snowboarding, went from boycott status to self-proclaimed freedom-fighter overnight. Snowboarding had a new enemy.
It’s not likely that Burton offered Terje any stock options for his sacrifice. They didn’t have to. Terje rose instantly to the rank of cult-hero. Here was the world’s best snowboarder turning down an almost guaranteed Olympic gold medal based on principle alone. A worthy principle but let’s be clear who really won the war. Burton now sits on the board of trustees for the USSA. Burton is a primary sponsor for the USSA's Olympic snowboarding team; and snowboarding is now a staple in the USSA'S so-called “portfolio of sports”.
The Vampire-Wolf-Squid secured its blood funnel into snowboarding, leaving the Beast free to roam the world snapping up snowboarding’s bounty of goats. Snowboarding appears to have grown up. White goats are milked, before being sent to pasture, leading a fresh herd of new kids for the Squids. Goats to slaughter—some fled, away from the Vampire culling the balance of the herd.
Meanwhile, Craig Kelly has passed, a flying tomato has gone down in history, and Terje still rips. At least Sage hit the slopes with some style. The snowboard industry is now in the grips of the Vampire-Wolf-Squid, keeping the world informed about the colorful history of snowboarding.
Snowboarding has been consumed. The Beast feeds targets to boarders before sitting down to eat them for breakfast. Media feeds scour the web pumping kids full of taurine driven insanity, unlocking the gates before launching them into the field of smoking hot goats. X games lure the lost back into the fold, thinking they’ve jumped the fence. If they can handle the show they earn a ticket to ride in the three-ring circus.
The carve came back hard when the soft slide caught hold. Easing back on the throttle before giving the party wagon some gas, snowboarding launched into the pit of despair. Things began to get gnarly. Ski kids already late to the party hooked a tip on the net while old squids fed hollow sacks to the herd. Some snowboarders naturally regurgitated, choking on the poles.
The Beast stroked the loins of it's offspring as they rose to claim the forsaken snowboarders preceding them and sold VIP tickets to the bonfire, letting the brands get hot before burning them into the flesh of their goats and watching the twisted rippers fight to the death. Humbled and broken, new snowboarders and skiers unleashed the flood.
Soaked from the drawers down, riders have now been reduced to inventory in the social fabric of existence. Stacked in highly profitable warehouses of action-sports heroes and plugged into the socioeconomic machine like pods in the matrix, pumped full of Olympic dreams before being fed to the Beast.
The battle to save snowboarding’s soul never happened. The muffled cries of injustice rang hollow. The defiant snowboarder and the loyal sponsor, already in the belly of the Beast, were caught with their pants down, unable to fight. Snowboarders silently fell. Waking up, finding lost mountains, while the Beast silently rolled to a stop on top of the Pass. Alpine-snowboarding sped off to catch its flight to Europe, powered by the hopes & dreams of all souls on board to wake up with the rising sun.
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