There's a side to snowboarding you won't ever see on NBC or on packs of gum or Target commercials. It was represented on Friday, when Sage Kotsenburg won the Olympic Gold for slopestyle snowboarding. While all the talk leading up to the Olympics suggested that this event -- on the Olympic stage for the first time -- could not be won without the controversial flashy triple-cork move, Kotsenburg showed everyone otherwise. The trick itself is symbolic for a larger struggle in the snowboarding community between artistic integrity and commercial success. Since private corporate sponsors pay snowboarders rather than an established team or association, being a professional snowboarder requires not only skill but also good salesmanship. It is easier to wow the crowds and win competitions with big flip-and-spin maneuvers, but it's more impressive, as Kostenburg showed us, to win without them.
Shaun White, on the other hand, has sold snowboarding's soul, succumbing to the pressure to flip and spin for a few million dollars in endorsement deals. The Olympics are entertainment, and the people want a spectacle. Shaun White gave them a spectacle and made millions in endorsement deals because he is fun to watch. But White also stole the spotlight from snowboarding, drawing the most attention to himself rather than the sport's validity and recognition as a whole.
Granted, Sage Kotsenburg also flipped and spun his way to victory just like Shaun White did when he first won gold in the halfpipe, but Kostenburg balanced that with style and originality on the rails portion of the competition. And, ultimately, it's his actions off the slope that make him the people's champion. Kotsenburg is all about the snowboard community. During the medal ceremony, Kotsenburg invited his close friends and fellow medalists, Mark McMorris (bronze, Canada) and Staale Sandbech (silver, Norway) to stand with him atop the podium, a beautiful representation of the community aspect of the sport.
Moreover, the snowboarding community appreciates how Kotsenburg draws inspiration from all areas of the sport -- not just the competitive scene. The majority of professional snowboarders do not compete in the X Games or in the Olympics but rather take their skills from terrain parks and apply them to urban settings or the back country. Inspired by skateboarding, urban snowboard crews take to the streets at night from Boulder to Boston to Montreal, attempting to find the gnarliest stair sets or other urban features you can somehow bonk, slide, or tap. Most of these snowboarders would tell you that what they do is more akin to an art form than a sport. Snowboarding provides a means for free expression of the body the same way any type of dance does. Kotsenburg draws upon all of this in his contest runs, looking to his competitors and every day snowboarders for inspiration. That's rare in the contest scene.
Kotsenburg is not the only one trying to bring the sport back to its stylish roots. Fellow Team USA member Danny Davis is also trying to emphasize style over aerial acrobatics and faced off against the ever-present Flying Tomato last night, both of them ultimately losing the halfpipe competition to Russian superstar Iouri Podladtchikov and Japan's Ayumu Hirano and Taku Hiraoka. Shaun White has said he doesn't consider his lackluster performance last night as an end to his career -- he told Today that he might return for 2018 at the age of 31. White would be wise to re-assess his relationship to the snowboarding community in the meantime. The difference between Danny Davis and Shaun White is clearly portrayed in what they chose to do when their sponsors let them build their own halfpipesi. When White got this opportunity, he built a private halfpipe for him alone to ride and improve on, keeping his progress secret to keep his competitive edge. When Mountain Dew approached Danny Davis with a similar proposition, he invited all of his friends to come hang out and practice on it. Its name? The "Peace Pipe."
Photo via @Shaun_White