Leaping with the enemy: There's not much sign of the Olympic spirit in the bitter rivalry between snowboarders and skiers at Sochi
Jake Burton's entourage is a huddle of public-relations reps who blur the line between professionalism and awestruck fandom. They sit in the corner of an apartment in the Swiss resort of Laax as Burton appears from somewhere upstairs, like a mountain deity. Hands are shaken.
At 59, the American's hair is still surfer-long, and he wears jeans and a hoodie. Under the logo on his chest there reads the date that the sport he created – snowboarding – was born: "Est. 1977". Burton has to be the only inventor of a sport who has lived to guide it from niche pursuit to global industry, cultural phenomenon and the Olympic big time.
But almost 40 years after he released himself from the clunky bindings of skiing, thrusting youthful rebellion into a staid world, he and his grown-up child are negotiating tricky terrain. As riders start competing at the Sochi Games, most on boards that can be traced back to Burton's barn in Vermont, old enmities are resurfacing – in one case, reaching a US federal court.
The afternoon before my audience with Jake at the Burton European Open, a contest that he hosts each January, some of the world's best riders are competing in the slopestyle event. High above Laax, rails and obstacles lead to a series of giant ramps from which riders launch into dizzying aerial manoeuvres (riders take them on one by one: judges score them on difficulty and style). An American boarder called Seth Hill stands above the start ramp. Imbibing the devil-may-care spirit that many associate with his sport, he downs a Jägermeister miniature before dropping in. The crowd roars.
But as Hill nails his run with a final backside 900 tail-grab (two-and-a-half full rotations performed while clutching the rear tip of his snowboard), the important action is arguably taking place away from the cameras. Alongside the professional slopestyle course, which made its Olympic debut with qualifying rounds yesterday, a smaller snowpark is open to anyone. Winter playgrounds just like it have popped up in resorts all over the world to meet the demands of a boom in boarding. But what's striking in Laax is the number of young skiers lining up to pull tricks.
That skiing has become cool has been clear for more than a decade – on pistes, parks and away from it all in the backcountry. Freestyle skis are fatter than traditional skis and have tips at both ends, allowing riders to travel, take off and land similar tricks backwards as well as forwards. The clothing has changed, too, as well as the culture. In short, a ski industry that was stunned by a snowboarding craze had to adapt to survive a descent into dowdy irrelevance. Adaptation meant imitation; young skiers today talk like boarders and, were it not for their unyielding boots, they'd walk like them, too.
For the first time in the Winter Olympics, they are also competing in the same arenas, including slopestyle. But perhaps most symbolically, skiers will also follow boarders into the halfpipe, a snowboarding domain synonymous with the sport. The vast, sloping furrow of hard snow was where, at the last Olympics, Shaun White, the American rider, stole the whole show – and its global television audience – from such traditional winter stages as the ice rink and downhill skiing course.
UK Olympic team member Rowan Cheshire competing in New Zealand last year (Getty Images)
Rowan Cheshire represents a new face of skiing – and of British sport. The 18-year-old is part of a six-person British freestyle ski team making its Olympic debut in Sochi. Only one was born before 1990. She's among the favourites to win gold in the women's halfpipe. "I don't think people saw our sport as a proper one," she says from her home in Stoke. "I think it will stick with us for life that we are the first halfpipe skiers to compete at the Olympics. We're making history, which is pretty cool." Not so long ago, a skier in a halfpipe would have been as welcome – and likely – as a waterskier stealing waves from Hawaiian surfers. Cheshire's generation has little memory of a cultural rift in the mountains that I, a lifelong and passionate skier, assumed had closed years ago. But symbolic parity in Sochi parallels tough times for snowboarding brands, and a new round of friction and soul-searching.
After I meet Burton, who is laid-back about skiing ("I just don't know that I would gain that much by giving a shit about it," he tells me, smiling), I talk to Marko Grilic, a 30-year-old pro snowboarder from Slovenia. Over a beer, he's more forthcoming. "I don't know how Jake explained this, but I'm gonna be pretty rough. Skiing hated on snowboarding, then, all of a sudden, snowboarding became way cooler and skiers wanted to look like them. They just copy-pasted everything we did… they're stealing all the people that should be snowboarding."
Grilic isn't alone among veterans in feeling this way. Back up the mountain, Henry Jackson is commentating on the slopestyle event in front of a big screen beside the course. The British boarder and presenter's words, including frequent shouts of "SIIICK!", echo across the valley. "Snowboarding has brought so much to the ski industry," he says. "Like, skiing was going downhill fast, then guys like Jake Burton came in with advances that revitalised it. He brought that [in] against heavy resistance, and I think what's lacking now is a slight tipping of the hat from skiers."
Such resentment is perhaps understandable. Statistics and anecdotal evidence indicate a worrying decline in snowboarding, not least in its US birthplace. The widely read Outside Magazine ran a story last week in which American writer and skier Marc Peruzzi said "snowboarding is screwed". Some US resorts have seen snowboarder visits fall by half, while sales of equipment are down 29 per cent in the past six years (Burton Snowboards, a private company, does not share figures, but annual sales have been estimated at half a billion dollars). "Where did all the snowboarders go?" Peruzzi asks. "Many are skiing. Others simply quit."
The story didn't go down well among many boarders. A blogger called the "Angry Snowboarder" despaired of "bigot asshole skiers that write for online magazines saying we're dead". He suggested that snowboarding was merely going through a period of change, as early adopters get old. That may be the case. It is still a young sport, but surely the evidence is worrying even if it is shared by "asshole skiers" such as me.
Snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton has seen the sport go from niche pursuit to global industry
Every boarder that I speak to has friends who have ditched skiing for boarding only to have returned in the past few years. They switched in the first place because skiing used to be roughly as cool as rambling. Family photo albums from the early 1990s are fashion- disaster flickbooks: faded pastel-green salopettes from C&A's Rodeo line (RIP); grey, rear-entry boots; ski passes flailing on retractable strings. For young skiers who were prepared to learn something new, snowboarding promised a fresh image that was anathema to their tartiflette-scoffing parents.
For ski manufacturers, this spelt disaster. Kevan Beane, 46, is a former US racer who has been making his own skis in Chamonix, France, for more than 20 years, latterly under his Rip'nWud brand. In the mid-1990s, Beane worked with Salomon, a giant in skiing, to help develop some of the earliest "freeride" skis, the fat planks that transformed the sport off-piste and kick-started a revival that is now evident in the halfpipe. "Snowboarding is what pulled the heads out of the ski industry's ass," he says.
Burton made the switch earlier than most. Like me, he first skied with his parents when he was seven, in Vermont. But as a teenager in the 1960s, he was seduced by the Snurfer, a popular stand-up sled on which "snow surfers" balanced while holding a rope attached to the front. Later, as a bored business-school grad, he devised bindings to keep feet fixed to board, and developed board design.
He also cut the rope. In 1977, while working tirelessly in his barn, he founded Burton Snowboards and shaped a fad into a sport. "I was passionate about skiing and, when I started making snowboards, I thought I would continue to ski," he recalls. "But now I have no interest in wearing a pair of ski boots. I almost laugh to see them. And those poles? I don't get it, and I never have since snowboarding got so good."
Before it could get good, it had to fight for acceptance. Early boarders were viewed as reckless punks who cut up mountains or got in the way. Resorts banned them. But Burton and his cohorts embraced the resistance to imbue boarding with a rebelliousness that only made it more popular. "It still has this free spirit," he says. "It's about independence, about not being told what to do – not following tradition, or the letter of the law." Slowly, resorts woke up. In America, though, three still hold out against progress, like golf clubs with bans on women. In Alta, in Utah, Burton remembers being screamed at by skiers while riding in their backyard about nine years ago. "Ski patrol never caught up with us – we were gone," he says.
Half-pipe dreams: UK Olympic team member James Woods (PA)
In 2008, he launched a "poach for freedom" campaign with prize money awarded to the best short film made by snowboarders riding in these "elitist, fascist resorts". The ban remains, and, just last week, a crew of boarders filed a lawsuit against Alta. Because it's built on public land, they argue, a ban is not only anti-constitutional but also breaches their human rights.
Great marketing for a sport that has otherwise slid into the establishment (these are its fifth Olympics) but a few refusenik resorts no longer pose the biggest threat. Surely that now comes from skiing, the resurgence of which Burton has inadvertently inspired. But he insists he's, well, cool about it. "We took advantage when skiing was so lame but when it came back, it was kind of inevitable. Imitation is flattery… I mean, we imitated skiing first. I didn't invent steel edges, or build these resorts."
Burton's sangfroid notwithstanding, his company is worrying about the future, and in particular its youngest market. Small children, including even Burton's own, typically started out on skis. Boards were unwieldy and instructors hard to find. So children skied, and switched later. "But it's a lot harder for them to put the skis away now," Henry Jackson warns. "If you're already really good at skiing and you can hit the big jumps and it's cool, why would you stop? That's tough for snowboarding – there are a lot fewer boarders coming through now."
To get children in on the ground floor, Burton has devised better junior boards, as well as special leashes and "Riglet Parks" in resorts (slogan: "pulling kids in the right direction"). One such park made its British debut this winter at the Ski and Snowboard Show in London. Burton believes that if children board first, it's still the more appealing discipline.
Perhaps encouragingly for Burton, Britain's youngest Olympians talk more positively about the sport, by which they mean skiing and boarding. For years now, thanks partly to the X Games, the alternative "Olympics" for action sports, riders have competed at the same events. Freestyle skiers are much closer to boarders now than they are to Alpine ski racers in their skinsuits.
UK Olympic team member Rowan Cheshire represents a new face of skiing (PA)
James Woods, 22, is one of the favourites to win the ski slopestyle event. As a child at a now defunct dry slope in Sheffield, he took snowboarding and ski lessons at the same time, and "loved them both". He only stuck with skiing because the lessons were cheaper and more available. "I just about remember the time when there were mountains for skiers and mountains for snowboarders," he says. "But it's definitely done a full 360. If anyone's holding on to other ideas, or thinks skiers are ungrateful to board sports, they can carry on dreaming."
Pat Sharples is a veteran at 36, and head coach of the British Freeski team. For him, a place at the Olympics "is more than a dream come true because it was never even a dream – we never imagined this could happen". He credits Shaun White and his halfpipe feats with promoting his sport, too, but adds: "There's no friction anymore – they just happen to be on one plank and we're on two. We're inspired by each other."
Whether or not Burton can ensure that his sport continues to thrive, his place in history is reserved. Not that the company CEO, who survived a cancer scare in 2012, has plans to retire. At Laax, where he stays until the end of a Burton gig on the last night of competition (headlined, perhaps incongruously, by Pete Doherty and his band, Babyshambles) he is still stunned by how far his sport has come.
"It's been an incredible experience just to watch the way kids took hold of it," Burton says. "I had no idea that people would be doing double corks [a crazy trick] or that halfpipes would ever exist. I mean, what's happened has been phenomenal. It's been a great ride."
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