Newsreal: Snowblind

A Swedish journalist explains why the greatest snowboarder refuses to compete at the Winter Olympics in Nagano.

Published January 26, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN -- First came the surfboard, then the skateboard and finally the snowboard. But only one of them has achieved the status of an Olympic sport -- which you would think would make serious snowboarders glow with pride. It hasn't.

In a major blow to the boarding world, Terje Haakonsen, the three-time half-pipe world champion, won't be going to Nagano next month to compete in the first-ever Olympic snowboarding event. And without Haakonsen, known to many simply as "The Legend," the snowboarding competition has about as much allure as women's figure skating would have without Michelle Kwan.

Haakonsen and many of his Scandinavian snowboarding colleagues are already deeply suspicious of the commercial motives behind turning his sport into an Olympic event. Haakonsen also has nothing but disdain for the Games' governing body, the International Olympic Committee, which he likens to organized crime.

"When I say Mafia," he explained to Sweden's TV4 recently, "I mean what most people see in the word: people who take over control but never let anyone have an inside look at what they are doing."

Along with its smugness and secrecy, the IOC, says Haakonsen, is strictly a rich men's club. "The fact is that bigwigs ride in limousines and stay in fancy hotels while the athletes live in barracks in the woods," he told the Oslo newspaper Verdens Gand.

Edge Magazine, the leading skate and snowboard magazine in Scandinavia, is so contemptuous of the whole affair that it has decided not to cover the Olympics at all. "Snowboarders are independent people who just want to go free riding and do things their own way," says Kristoffer Bjvrkman, editor of Edge. "All of a sudden they have to obey a massive set of rules, maybe even wear Olympic gear. It would not surprise me the least if some boarder will try to rebel by riding buck naked in Nagano."

Beneath the anger, however, lies a deeper issue for snowboarders: Is what they do a sport or a lifestyle? And if it's a lifestyle, what the hell is it doing in the Olympics in the first place? Many snowboarders, says Bjvrkman, have retained a "rebel attitude" they acquired in their skateboarding days.

"For instance," Bjvrkman explains, "the word practice has never been a part of the snowboarding vocabulary, but in order to make it to the Olympics you really do have to practice. Dealing with sponsorships is another ordeal to many free-spirited snowboarders. If you want to make a living off snowboarding, you have to kiss ass like never before. You have to suck up to sponsors and participate in degrading contests and events."

Still, with money out there to be made, not every snowboarder is following the Scandinavian's principled lead. "The Germans and Swiss have started to snowboard," observes a local, "but they don't know how to do it. They don't have the style at all. They've learned the tricks, but they really lack the true spirit of snowboarding."

What is that "spirit"? Scandinavian boarders speak vaguely of the "feeling" the true boarder brings, a quality, they insist, that an Olympic judge could never understand. Instead, they say, Olympic spectators are likely to see a great deal of "spin to win" -- meaning he who spins on his board the most wins -- from competitors who are mediocre in most other ways. Bjvrkman cites German snowboarder Fabian Rohrer, "who wins championship after championship, although he's a lousy snowboarder!"

Ultimately, says Bjvrkman, snowboarding is a lifestyle, not an Olympic sport. "This lifestyle is an art," he says, "and you can't compete in art."

By Tomas Jacobsson

Tomas Jacobsson is publisher of Kritik, an Internet magazine based in Stockholm.

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Olympics Winter Olympics