The Outsider: Young guns in the “dying” sport of snowboarding
Is snowboarding on the decline? Dying? Already dead?
This week-into-weekend in Norway marks the debut of an experimental new format for X Games: summer and winter, all at the same time, with men’s and women’s street skateboarding in downtown Oslo on Thursday night, followed by ski and snowboard superpipe and big air from now until Sunday.
If X Games is the pulse of competitive action sports — and I’d say it is these days — then Oslo might mark the start of a cultural shift. Or maybe it’s more like the televised iteration of a shift that started just two or three seasons ago.
And it’s not only because Euro X Games is mixing summer and winter. No, it’s more about the invited athletes who are now dominating the always-evolving world of action sports. For starters, there’s a whole new generation taking over the podium. Look at the Oslo leaderboard so far: 16-year-old Brazilian Pamela Rosa came away with the women’s street skateboard win, while machine-in-man-form Nyjah Huston took gold for the men. At 21 years old he might as well be eligible for AARP skate benefits.
Or, like 29-year-old Shaun White, Huston has just been winning for so long, since he was so young, that it seems like he’s been around for years. (It’s easy to forget that White has been a Burton pro since 7 years old.) Huston still has at least a half-decade of winning ahead, but it now looks like White is passing the halfpipe torch to the next wave of riders — whether he wants to or not. He skipped out on competitions for two seasons before returning with a win at Dew Tour this December, but he opted to miss Euro X and this opened the door for his heir: 17-year-old Ayumu Hirano. At Friday’s Oslo superpipe, the acrobatic Japanese ripper took first, with 27-year-old veteran Iouri Podladtchikov (aka I Pod) in second and 21-year-old Chase Josey in third. The women’s podium was almost identically eclectic (if entirely American), with 15-year-old Chloe Kim in first, 32-year-old Kelly Clark in second (will she ever age?) and 19-year-old Steamboat native Arielle Gold in third.
And that’s the second shift: snowboarding is not only younger — it’s now a bona fide international sport. It has been for at least two decades (just Google Jussi Oksanen, Terje Haakonsen or Andreas Wiig sometime), but beginning with the last Olympics competition results are now evenly split between North America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific nations like New Zealand. It’s the same in freeskiing, with 13-year-old Estonian phenom Kelly Sildaru winning not one, but two major slopestyle golds: the first at Dew Tour, the second at X Games Aspen. And she’d probably pull a three-peat if the Oslo event included slope.
As someone from the outgoing generation of skiers and snowboarders — White is just two years older than I am — it’s pretty damn exciting to see teenagers dominating the sport’s biggest stages (not to mention the bottomless world of filming and social media). Humbling and just a little depressing, but exciting nonetheless.
It’s exciting because Kim and Sildaru and Hirano are emerging at a time when snowboarding (not freeskiing) is supposedly declining. The latest data from SnowSports Industries America shows that stateside snowboard participation and gear sales declined from 2010 to 2013 before finally leveling off in the past two seasons. Alpine skiing has fared even worse on paper, with participation numbers dipping by a shocking 20 percent in 2011-12. At the same time, freeskiing exploded by 47 percent before declining by 25 percent the next season. (Keep in mind: snow across the U.S. has been insanely unpredictable in that timeframe, but the hard numbers are still shocking.)
Today, the competition circuit is catching up. Snowboard halfpipe — the big, bad original — plays second fiddle to ski halfpipe in Oslo and Aspen. Hirano and Kim have already won Euro X gold and it’s not even the weekend. My sport is still the highlight at Dew Tour and, of course, the final snowboard-only showcase, the Burton U.S. Open in Vail next week, but freeskiing undeniably took the “cool” crown a few years back. And the ratings. And the sponsor’s hearts. And, most likely, the 2018 Winter Olympics spotlight. (I can’t wait to see if any of these events embrace snowskating, a sport that’s slowly been evolving and taking shape in Breck.)
That’s where these young guns come in. When I switched from skiing to snowboarding at 13 years old, the biggest reason was guys like White and Oksanen and Wiig. They just looked like they were having so much damn fun in the pages of Transworld Snowboarding and I wanted to join in: on rails, on jumps, over cliffs, in the trees.
So, back to the start: Is snowboarding dying or dead? Hell no. If the newest generation of snowboarders feels the same kind of excitement watching Kim and Hirano slay the pipe, well, SIA’s numbers don’t matter much. Snowboarding has always been about snowboarding — not ratings or gear sales — and I don’t see the culture dying anytime soon. Or ever.
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