KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Behind all those dangerous double corks and flashy frontside 1080s, a battle for the soul of snowboarding is playing out at the Olympics.
Yes, Shaun White is the favorite in the halfpipe; his quest for a third straight gold medal in his sport’s biggest event comes Tuesday. But there’s no such thing as a sure thing, and where the medals go could help determine which direction the sport goes next.
In several events on the road to the Olympics — and even in the men’s Olympic slopestyle contest won by Sage Kotsenburg — judges rewarded more technical, less acrobatic moves that harken to the early days of the sport. Essentially, they’ve started falling back in love with what snowboarders call “style” — a showy grab of the board here, a showy tweaking of the legs there.
“Style is what makes snowboarding great,” said American Danny Davis, who won the Winter X Games with a couple of old-school moves that nobody else in the international field tried. “That’s what sets us apart from moguls skiing. It’s what sets us apart from skiing. It feels good to do tricks and tweak them. It’s fun.”
Only a snowboarding purist would’ve appreciated the first two tricks Davis used on his winning run two weekends ago in Aspen, Colo.
The first was a backside 360 — one revolution, not flashy at all, but considered insanely difficult because the rider spends almost the entire five seconds in the air with no view of the halfpipe and where he’ll land.
The second was a switch method grab — riding backward into a jump up the pipe, no twisting at all, but a huge tweaking, or bending, of the legs behind the back and a grab of the board between the bindings.
That sort of trick, and even the unorthodox, backward way Davis slides into the pipe, are the sort of things that held much more currency back in the 1980s, when still photos, not an instantly posted video, were the way most people ingested news about their snowboarding heroes.
“You look at Danny’s run, in a perfect world it might best Shaun at the Olympics,” said Patrick Bridges, editor for Snowboarding Magazine. “But in 2014, if it beats Shaun, a lot of people would be scratching their head.”
Some were scratching their head at Kotsenburg’s win in slopestyle, which included a difficult 4½-spin trick he had never tried before but not an acrobatic triple cork — three head-over-heels flips — that was presumed to be the must-have jump to win gold.
If the same theme holds up in the halfpipe, Davis could really have a chance.
“For us, you do your thing and if the judges like it, you’re stoked,” Davis said. “Because sometimes, you do your thing and they don’t and you’re like, well, what the hell can I do?”
Bridges figures the Olympic judges know a good portion of viewers watching the halfpipe contest won’t care about snowboarding again for another four years. He sees how they’re almost obligated to give more credit to the big, TV-friendly tricks than the technical ones.
Which would give the advantage to White, who, along with Iouri Podladtchikov, are the only riders to successfully land the sport’s toughest trick, the “Yolo” — three full twists wrapped inside of two flips — in competition.
“I love Danny’s riding,” said Podladtchikov, aka the ‘I-Pod,’ after finishing sixth at the X Games because he wasn’t able to land the Yolo. “He’s so refreshing to watch. I don’t want to be all full of myself, but I think if I would’ve landed (the Yolo), there wouldn’t have been a question.”
And if he or White land it in the halfpipe Tuesday, along with the other double cork moves they can pull off in their sleep, one of them will almost certainly win the gold medal.
Phoebe Mills, the Olympic bronze-medal gymnast who now works as an Olympic snowboarding judge, says there are no hard-and-fast rules as to what judges will favor.
“I don’t know that I’d say the criteria has changed,” Mills said. “A lot of the judges were snowboarders, too. I think we all appreciate a grab that’s held on to during the whole trick. And big amplitude and things that look good, whether it’s a backside 360 or a backside 900.”
Regardless of what sort of riding the judges prefer, huge jumps above the halfpipe almost always receive big scores. They’re about as objective of a criteria as there is in snowboarding.
Yet, in much the same way the compulsory figures were taken out of figure skating in 1990 because they were deemed too time-consuming and not entertaining, snowboarding has eliminated the mandatory “straight air” trick on the halfpipe. It’s a nod to the reality that the general public wants more gymnastics on a snowboard and isn’t as impressed with a straight jump 15 feet above the halfpipe.
“You’d like to think there would be a compulsory straight air but there’s not,” Bridges said.
What gets rewarded on the halfpipe in Russia could determine whether something as simple as a straight air comes back — and what these riders might be doing at the next Olympics in South Korea.
“We’re a little like a snake biting its own tail,” Canadian rider Crispin Lipscomb said. “It will take people like Danny Davis or the top five athletes to slow it down and work on some style stuff to change what the judges do.”