Mountain tribe will always be rebels

Alister Morgan on the snowboarders who are suspicious of the Olympics
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The Independent Online
First, there was synchronised swimming, rhythmic gymnastics and beach volleyball. Now snowboarding has become an Olympic event. But not everyone in a sport dedicated to self-expression welcomes the change.

Years ago, ski resorts still banned snowboarding from their slopes. In 1997 it is a sport in the ascendancy. A thousand spectators watched over 200 competitors perform various feats of gravity-defying manoeuvres at the recent British Snowboarding Champion-ships in Les Arcs, France.

A snowboard is essentially a giant, wheel-less skateboard. Competition events include slalom, but the essence of snowboarding can be witnessed during "halfpipe", "boardercross" and "big air" events where competitors express themselves (and disregard personal safety) in mid-air acrobatics.

The sport's roots come from surfing and skateboarding, not skiing. Like surfers, many snowboarders live an almost a tribal existence, travelling from country to country and mountain to mountain.

Its peculiar fashions and brand names have indelibly stained the urban sub-culture of thousands of youngsters around the globe. Snowboard jackets and boots are worn by hundreds of city youths, whose experience of ice and snow usually doesn't extend past their fridge-freezers. Naturally, fashion costs. A board around pounds 300, jacket and boots pounds 200 each, trousers pounds 150.

As the fastest growing adrenalin activity of the Nineties, the sport commands an impressive following on and off the piste, and therefore has a formidable "global dollar" value.

Snowboarding, having gained the attention of the International Olympic Committee, will feature at next year's Nagano Winter Olympics, Japan. That will bring previously undreamed of exposure, but many in the sport regret this development.

"I don't think snowboarding should be in the Olympics because it's more of a pastime," says Eddie Spearing, president of the British Snowboarding Association. "In my opinion, snowboarding is only in the Olympics because the Federation Internationale du Ski want to be in control of an event that will be as big as skiing. Snowboarding will be misrepresented."

Historically, the International Snowboarding Federation and the FIS have, by mutual agreement, had as little to do with one another as possible. But the increasing popularity of snowboarding has seen the FIS change its policy.

The sport's suspicion of the FIS may be linked to a brand of camaraderie and fair play now unfashionable at Olympic level. For instance, Chris Moran, who narrowly won the senior men's British championship, decided to share his title with second-placed Jonny Barr.

Barr has no desire to go to the Olympics. "I've been boarding long enough to know the roots of the sport," he says. "I compete in the British Championships simply because I know everyone.

"Olympic snowboarding will be judged on two disciplines. You'll be training all the time but snowboarding isn't about competition. It's about finding the best off-piste powdered snow and surfing your own style. It's about expression, feeling free and riding the whole mountain."

Above the ski runs, at the top of the mountains, the true spirit of snowboarding is unlikely to change despite its new status.