Boys (and girls) from the White Stuff

They say it's a sport; others say it's a 24/7 party. As the Winter Olympics begin, can British snowboarders set the record straight? Jonathan Thompson reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This weekend, determined to avoid a repeat of the scandal at this year's Winter Olympics, which begin in five days' time, the International Olympic Committee is busy implementing its earliest and most widespread tests to date for banned substances.

Aware of the free-spirited lifestyle associated with sports such as snowboarding, the IOC is taking no chances at the 20th Winter Olympics in Turin, and will ruthlessly enforce a zero-tolerance policy on banned substances, both before and during the Games.

It is a move that has been welcomed by many in the sporting world, but one that has prompted some in the snowboarding community to challenge the stereotype that has so often beset their discipline.

On Wednesday, the four members of the British Olympic snowboarding team - Lesley McKenna, Dan Wakeham, Zoe Gillings and Kate Foster - will travel from their training camp in Switzerland to the Olympic village in Turin. Their coach, Craig Smith, is particularly outspoken in his criticism of persistent analogies between the world of snowboarding and the world of drugs.

"People don't understand our sport - they think snowboarders smoke a lot of dope, party all the time and are always drinking in bars," says Mr Smith. "But the actual professionals aren't doing that at all. It's like golfers. Plenty of golfers take a six-pack of beer when they go out on the course - but you wouldn't find one in Tiger Woods's cart."

But that is far from the whole story. While the world's leading snowboarders have been meticulously training and preparing for this competition for months, it is not only the professional athletes who will be riding into Turin between now and the opening ceremony on Friday.

Top-level snowboarding attracts a circus wherever it goes, and, if the stereotype is to be believed, this includes the requisite wild animals. Snowboarding culture is unashamedly subversive and anti-establishment. And below the upper echelons of the sport, partying, drinking, music and - for many - recreational drugs are as much part of the backdrop as the snow-capped mountains. It is a scene that may frustrate the professionals, but it also shows little sign of abating.

Part of the problem, it seems, is the fact that some of the high-profile international events on the snowboarding scene, such as the ill-fated Cham Jam in the French resort of Chamonix, are built around the music, the DJs and the socialising, just as much as the boarding itself.

Even the UK's national championship - the Brits, sponsored by the mobile phone company Orange - is known as much for its partying as for the action on the slopes. The publicity for this year's event, to be held in March in the Swiss resort of Laax, sums up the atmosphere: "Snow Loving, Freestyle Junkies With Party Streak Wanted".

"The thing about snowboarding is that you go to an average competition and it's designed as a party in the first place," says Mr Smith. "But to get to the very top of any sport, you can't be out partying every night. That's the misconception."

Despite such arguments, snowboarding has struggled to shake off its bad-boy image. When Rebagliati lost his gold medal at Nagano in 1998 it was front-page news across the world. The Canadian claimed the cannabis in his system was the result of passive smoking at a party and was later reinstated, but for many the stereotype of the sport had been confirmed.

At the same Games, the sport's name was dragged through the mud a second time when the Austrian snowboarder Martin "the Terminator" Freinademetz was expelled from the Olympic village after smashing up his hotel room and rampaging round a car park on a snowmobile.

This time round, the IOC is taking no chances with drug use, and has dramatically expanded its testing procedures. It intends to conduct 1,200 tests on athletes during the 2006 Games. A spokeswoman for the IOC told The Independent on Sunday this week: "The length of the testing period has increased; the number of tests is greater, and we will be testing for more substances."

But lower down the snowboarding food chain little has changed. Among boarding com-munities in some of the bigger resorts, particularly in North America, drug-taking is still very much a factor. One young British boarder who has been working in the Canadian resort of Whistler this season described how some people had begun paying for services such as taxis to and from the airport in wraps of cocaine or small bags of marijuana.

Some argue that snowboarding is simply a youth-oriented sport, and boarders are just behaving as any number of young people are doing in towns and cities every night.

Ed Blomfield, the editor of the snowboarding magazine White Lines, says the sport has always been intertwined with the youth culture: "In the beginning, snowboarding was very anti-establishment. It had a lot of issues with skiers, as it wasn't allowed in some resorts in the States. Things have changed now, because it has become so mass market, but it has still retained some of that element.

"Snowboarding culture has more to it than simply competing and getting results. It's more of a lifestyle than just a sport."

Zoe Gillings, 20, one of the UK's brightest medal hopes in Turin, says it does not bother her if people misjudge professional boarders because of the antics of part-time colleagues.

"We accept everyone for who they are," says Ms Gillings, Britain's only qualifier in the boardercross discipline, in which four snowboarders compete against each other down a course of high-banked turns and jumps.

"I just hope that some people understand the difference, that's all. We're out competing and training the whole time."

Another of Britain's leading snowboarders, Jenny Jones, 25, says there will always be a party element attached to the sport: "For many people, snowboarding is associated with letting your hair down, going away to the mountains, to a foreign country, and trying something new.

"There can be drugs, but I don't see half as much as I used to - it's not a major thing."

Despite this, Ms Jones, the current British slopestyle and big air champion, says snowboarders still maintain a healthy lack of respect for authority figures, particularly in the big resorts.

"Boarders often get drunk and naked and then climb trees in places like Whistler," she laughs. "I've seen people running around naked, trying to see how many hot tubs they can get into without getting busted."

Research by Lucy Benjamin and Guy Fowles


Martin 'the Terminator' Freinademetz (Austria), 36, twice world champion in slalom and giant slalom. Thrown out of the 1998 Winter Olympics after smashing hotel furniture. Has also competed in a gorilla costume

Danny Kass (US), 23, has won a hoard of gold medals, including the US Open, and took silver at the 2002 Winter Olympics. At around the same time, narrowly escaped arrest at a US snowboarding convention after being removed from the event after alleged bout of heavy drinking

Daniel Franck (Norway), 31, took silver at 1998 Winter Olympics. Known as the 'enfant terrible' of old-school snowboarding - and there are still few rivals for the title. Once abseiled down a 30-storey building as a stunt for local television

Dimitri Fesenko (Russia), 23, finalist in the 2003 Nokia Air & Style contest. Parties hard, plays hard, likes fast cars. At a recent event in Prague, stayed out all night partying, then pulled off top-drawer tricks next day despite not having slept