Snowboarding an Olympic Winner
February 27, 2002
The days of snowboarders being seen as lazy bums and potheads who maliciously spray and slam skiers on the slopes are fading, according to many local snow sports enthusiasts.
“Anyone who still believes in the negative stereotypes of snowboarders hasn’t really been paying attention to anything that’s been going on in the sport,” said Mark Mickey, owner of Totally Board, a ski and snowboard shop in Truckee.
What’s been going on is that the “black sheep” of winter sports has been moving into the mainstream, gaining tremendous popularity over the last couple of years, and more recently, respect, thanks to this year’s Winter Olympic Games, where Americans took home five medals.
“I think that the Olympics has brought a real sense of pride to sport,” said Carrie Roberts, public relations manager for Boreal, one of the more popular resorts with beginner boarders. “Especially with the success of the American riders at this year’s games, it really shows that the sport has deep roots in our country.”
The American snowboarders dominated the Salt Lake slopes, particularly the men’s halfpipe, in which Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas gave the United States its first medals sweep in 46 years. American Kelly Clark took gold in the women’s halfpipe as well.
Snowboarding, which according to the History of Snowboarding Web site can be traced back to 1929 when a man named Burchette strapped a piece of plywood to his feet with clothesline and horse reins, was officially declared an Olympic sport in 1994.
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However, the event did not appear in Olympic competition until the 1998 games in Nagano. Even then the sport was shrouded in controversy, though, as Canadian boarder Ross Rebagliati was temporarily stripped of his gold medal for the giant slalom after testing positive for marijuana.
While Mickey said he believes the Olympics will definitely improve the negative images surrounding snowboarding culture, attitude and lifestyle, he said the stereotypes were already changing as the demographics of boarders have changed.
“I think that the stigma of the whole loser party crowd image was already fading before the games,” Mickey said. “We’ve got whole families coming in that want to learn to board, from little kids to people in their 60s.”
John and Dan Zamberlin, a father and son from Novato, are one such example of a family who decided to take up the sport together.
“I was a skier for 25 years, but now I’ve been fully converted to snowboarding,” said Dan Zamberlin, as he patted his 10-year-old’s head while riding on the Shirley Lake Chair at Squaw Valley USA. “All of my kids snowboard. I truly love it and don’t plan to ever go back to skiing.”
Zamberlin said the attitudes surrounding riders have definitely improved over the last 10 years.
“People used to say that snowboarders shouldn’t even be allowed on the lifts, but I think that people are a lot more tolerant of us now,” he said. “I think the Olympics were great for the sport because any positive coverage helps.”
According to Steve Sanders, local snowboarder and employee at Dave’s Skis and Boards in Truckee, he doesn’t know if the sport can get much bigger than it already is.
“Snowboarding is huge,” Sanders said. “We’ve got video games for it, and little kids coming into the shop who want to learn to board before they can barely even walk. The coolest thing that came out of the Olympics is that kids can now have icons in snowboarding like they have Michael Jordan in basketball.”
Sanders also said that the Olympics have been great for business.
“We’ve really been slammed the last couple of weeks,” he said.
Ski resorts are also feeling the aftershocks from the games.
“We’re already seeing a strong influx of people in the halfpipe, trying to emulate the things that they saw in the Olympics,” said Greg Felsch, director of snow sports and ski school at Alpine Meadows.
Felsch said the interest he has seen in snowboarding over the past few years has far surpassed the interest in skiing.
“I’d say it’s about 60 percent snowboarders out there on the mountain, 40 percent skiers,” he said. “Part of that has to do with the steep learning curve for snowboarding. It’s fairly easy to pick up the sport in a short amount of time.”
Roberts said that for young kids especially, snowboarding is appealing because it’s the “cool thing to do.”
“It’s extremely fashionable to snowboard,” Roberts said. “It’s an edgy sport and everyone’s doing it. I think the Olympics will only increase those feelings, and I hope it encourages people that have wanted to try it, but haven’t, to get out there on a board.”
As for the future of sport, everyone seems to have a different prediction.
Mickey of Totally Board said he thinks the Olympics may end up hurting the already ailing ski industry, as snowboarding’s popularity continues to outpace skiing.
“The ski industry has been feeling a decline for several years now,” Mickey said. “I think future generations are going to want to learn to snowboard instead of ski, especially since if it hadn’t been for the success of our snowboarders in the Olympics, we wouldn’t have received many medals considering that our skiers didn’t finish very well.”
Mickey said some future trends for the sport include a continued decline of step-in bindings on boards, especially since every Olympic boarder wore strap-ins, as well as an increasing interest in snowskating, a snow/skateboard hybrid that’s starting to catch on.
Felsch from Alpine Meadows hasn’t written off skiing just yet, though.
“I think that it’s going to come full circle,” Felsch said. “I think that people who snowboard will start to look for a new challenge and will go back to skiing.”
Felsch pointed to the influence that snowboarding has already started to have on skiing.
“We’re seeing more skiers than ever doing freestyle tricks and riding in the halfpipe,” he said. “It’s really great.”
Bill Hudson, marketing manager for Sugar Bowl, too, said the snowboarding craze has started to level off a little, as he’s seeing more and more kids wanting to pick up skiing.
“I think the coolest thing is being able to do both and I think that a lot of people are going to move in that direction,” Hudson said.