10/10/2013 | by Sam McMahon | 6 comments
From Innsbruck to Munich… And back again
Without doubt the most progressive competition jump in the history of snowboarding
By the early 1990s, ‘Big Air’ events had become the most popular format at contests. It’s not hard to see the appeal – a dozen or so riders hurl themselves off a giant jump at impossible angles for the entertainment of a baying crowd, and occasionally smash themselves in the process. While the skill of most of the competitors is unquestionable, there will always be one maverick who is two sandwiches short of a picnic, and who’s do-or-die approach (usually involving going bigger than everyone else, and upside down) makes him a firm crowd favourite. This is pure, adrenaline-fuelled excitement – way cooler than skiing ever looked – and when it burst onto the scene in snowboarding’s boom years it seemed made for TV.
In 1993, a little-known Austrian energy drink company called Red Bull agreed to sponsor a new big air competition in the mountain town of Innsbruck. The so-called ‘Red Bull’s Flying High Air & Style Contest’ would be held at the Bergisel Stadium – a cauldron-like ski jumping arena set on a hillside overlooking the city. 17 of the world’s best freestyle riders were invited to compete, and to the organisers’ surprise several thousand turned up to cheer them on. For the record, the inaugural event was won by Swiss big cheese Reto Lamm, who just pipped American superstar Shaun Palmer.
Over the next few years, the Air & Style grew and grew, becoming Europe’s (and probably the world’s) most prestigious Big Air competition. It was, essentially, a forerunner to the X-Games, attracting the snowboarding elite and an audience numbering in the tens of thousands – not to mention millions more on TV. Headline sponsors came and went – Quiksilver, G-shock – but the progressive riding over the main kicker was a constant. There was Ingemar’s super smooth and styled spins that claimed victory twice (1994/1998), Terje Haakonsen’s cat-like stomps in ’95, and Jim Rippey’s signature ‘Rippey Flips’ that saw him beat Jamie Lynn in 1997.
Then, in 1999, tragedy struck when everyone piled towards the exits at the end of the show and six people were killed in the ensuing crush. It was a reality check for an event that had snowballed in scale, perhaps beyond the limits of its organizers at the time and the intimate venue. For the next five years the Air & Style was forced to take place in Seefeld instead (where local hero Stefan Gimpl completed his remarkable three-in-a-row) before moving to a third venue in Munich’s Olympic Stadium – former home to Bayern Munich FC. It was bigger, safer and suitably impressive – though a little lacking in atmosphere. The kicker itself, however, remained a platform for mind-blowing riding. It was here that Kevin Pearce pulled a flawless cab 1260 to beat Mikkel Bang, David Benedek attempted the first double corks in competition, and Travis Rice pulled off a double backflip late backside 180 – on a snapped board! – to claim the win in 2006. It was the stuff of legends.
Meanwhile, back in Innsbruck, Billabong introduced a second version of the Air & Style – a quarterpipe event – in 2008. It was an exciting return to the Bergisel stadium, and with the lessons of 1999 learned, it went off without a hitch. So… when Nokia pulled out of the Munich event last year, Billabong wasted no time switching their Innsbruck QP contest to a crowd-pleasing big air format. In short, the Air & Style kicker – without doubt the most progressive competition jump in the history of snowboarding – returns to its rightful home this very month. Long may it remain.