Winter Olympics 2014: Stoked slopers lead flight into the future
A trio of 20-year-olds take the medals in the first slopestyle final, as Britons Jamie Nicholls and Billy Morgan finish in the top 10
Rosa Khutor Extreme Park
Sunday 09 February 2014
On a picture-perfect morning the first gold medal of the Winter Olympics went to Sage Kotsenburg, a languid 20-year-old snowboarder from Utah, and the American was followed on to the podium by two more languid 20-year-olds, one from Canada and one from Norway. In a sport that does its absolute best to reject conformity there is an alluring conformity to the athletes. They are young, relaxed, "loose", as one of them put it, and all sound similar too – the three medal winners spoke English with a uniform mid-Atlantic drawl.
Snowboarding and freestyle skiing are becoming a significant part of the Olympics. This was slopestyle's debut and there are 20 gold medals to be won across the disciplines, over a fifth of the total awarded in Sochi. It is a marriage bed the International Olympic Committee has enthusiastically jumped into and yesterday it was easy to see why. It is their future, and will attract a younger and broader audience towards the Winter Games.
In a setting like this the spectacle is superb, the competition is wide open from the first rider to the last – for over half the final Britain's Jamie Nicholls was in a medal position before finishing sixth – and the boarders' tricks and jumps are breathtaking. It was all soaked up by a noisy full house in the stand and standing area at the foot of the steep course. After the intense focus on the political issues surrounding the Games, this was manna from heaven for the organisers and the IOC.
On the other side of the bed, the snowboarders themselves lie a little more uneasily. Staale Sandbech, the Norwegian who took silver with a stunning late run, enjoyed himself on the slopes but remained less convinced about being an Olympian.
"It's different, there's way more rules," he said. "We're staying in a village and are all fenced in." And he shrugged as if this was all way beyond his comprehension.
There are times when neither partner understands the other. Billy Morgan, the other Briton in the final, was interviewed by the BBC after finishing 10th. Asked how he had approached his two runs in the final, he replied "I just thought huck it." In snowboarding hucking means simply to go for it. The BBC issued a prompt apology for what they thought was a swear word live on air. This a new Olympic sport, a whole new language to learn – and a new breed of sportsmen to enjoy.
"All the riders were stoked with that," said Kotsenburg. "The Olympics are sick to have snowboard. We were having a blast out there. Nobody is bummed when someone else does a good run. Man, we love each other – we're stoked to see each other do well."
The camaraderie between the dozen young men – and they are young, the Finn Peetu Piiroinen and Morgan were the only two born in the 80s – who contested the final was easily noticeable and a world removed from that of most competitors in sports at this elite level.
"We're just out here snowboarding, styling and being friends," said Sandbech. "We're not like 'we can't do handshakes because we might get ill'. We're more laid back, loose I guess.
"It's a young sport. We all grew up as kids snowboarding. When you're young you're just out there ripping, having fun. You see what's possible. The podium is all 1993 – that's pretty cool." Nicholls too was born in 1993, and he and Morgan each delivered similar summaries to their medal-winning colleagues, despite their personal disappointments.
"If I'd landed my run I'm sure I would have been up there with the best scores," said Morgan. He had won the morning's semi-final with a score that would have earned him bronze. Come the final he fell twice. "But that's the name of the game. Everybody is doing their best stuff. People are doing tricks they have never tried before today. It's just crazy. That's what makes slopestyle so fun, and so much fun to watch."
Nicholls endured an even more painful end to his afternoon. His first run, the best he has ever done, earned him a score of 85.5 and put him in the silver medal position. There he stayed until Mark McMorris produced one worth 88.75 on his second run. But the Briton was still on the podium, and remained there as another five runs were completed. Then Sweden's Sven Thorgren collected 87.5 and Nicholls was relegated to the also-rans.
His final placing of sixth was the best result on snow for a Briton at the Winter Olympics since 1968. Slopestyle, and its other snowboard and freestyle-skiing cousins, is a burgeoning sport in Britain. Over the last decade the number of snow domes has risen from one to six. The numbers are growing.
"It's crazy to think that both of us made top 10 in the Olympics," said Nicholls, who first learnt his tricks in Halifax. "I hope this will encourage more kids. I just want to inspire the younger generation and hopefully we will see them on the podium in the future at the Olympics."
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