In the latest of our series on competitive snowboarding, we spoke to FIS Snowboarding Director Roby Moresi to hear their side of the debate.
FIS - if you were at all unsure – is the governing body responsible for a number of winter sports disciplines at the Olympics, including all of the snowboarding. After a recent article on Snowboarder Mag calling for a boycott of the next games in Pyeongchang 2018, and Danny Davis' YoBeat interview which touched on the same subject - not to mention our own recorded chat with Terje Haakonsen - we thought it was about time FIS got the chance to answer its critics. In many ways the snowboard world's historic hatred of the Federation International du Ski is understandable - no matter where you stand, it made little sense to hand control of the biggest contest in freestyle snowboarding to an organisation which - at the time - had no experience of running a freestyle event. To many it made about as much sense as letting the figure skating governing body control the Olympic ice hockey.
Still, history is history and today is today - after Sochi 2014 how do we move forward? With another FIS World Cup and Dew Tour about to start next month, the World Snowboard Tour's grand plan to follow the surfer's model faltering and now Shaun White throwing yet another tour into the mix, how does the future of competitive snowboarding look?
Whilst FIS is sometimes still portrayed as an organisation of skiers, it was reassuring to meet the assistant race director for snowboarding: Roby Moresi. Roby has not only been a snowboarder for the last 25 years but he's enjoyed a stint as a professional rider for Santa Cruz, worked for the WST, kickstarted the snow park explosion in Italy, coached the Italian pipe team, shaped the halfpipe for the Turin Olympic games in 2006 and has five children, all snowboarders. There are few riders in any snowboarding organisation - or anywhere else, for that matter - with a CV like that.
I used to say fuck FIS! But then you get into it and see how complicated it is
From the outset it was obvious how much he cares for snowboarding. When asked he started off by saying "It's frustrating sometimes, I came from organising TTR events and in the old days I used to say 'fuck FIS!' But then you get into it and see how complicated it is, how things have to be handled and you understand a little bit more." He agreed that it's a positive thing that riders are maturing and becoming more vocal these days, "In the end I always believe that the nature of whatever you're dealing with will be the winner, no matter how long it takes."
In the Snowboarder Mag article, Pat Bridges and Arctic Challenge organiser Henning Andersen's main call to arms was that 'the IOC needs snowboarding more than we need them,' to which Roby had the following to say:
"If we are in the position we are in now, it is because snowboarding needed the Olympics. I believe that we both need each other - at least on the competitive side - to make sure our sport is represented at a maximum. It's the riders who we have to listen to: if other people are saying we don't need the Olympics, then who cares? But if the riders, who've demonstrated they want the Olympics, are keen for it then I trust their opinion."
"As you grow, your expectations and your needs grow, and that is what has brought the Olympics. I'm super happy with the show that we just had because it just showed how fucking good snowboarding is! But it's not a one way scenario, everybody needs everybody."
So what can FIS can bring to the table, in contrast to many of the other events run worldwide? "It's tried to make the sport as fair as possible so that anybody from the most unknown person to the Shaun Whites or McMorrises has the same chances to participate in events."
It's a fair point: as much as the WST, Dew Tour and X Games are hyped up by some as 'core' events, their selection processes are, for the most part, still obscure. The World Snowboard Tour announced a major reshuffle to address this (to a somewhat muted response) over the summer, but so far it looks like this has fallen flat with the individual event organisers. Meanwhile the X Games' invitation process is overseen by an opaque committee whose considerations include "a number of factors such as results of major competitions, outstanding film performances, exceptional competitive history, to name a few".
FIS, on the other hand, has to have a clear qualification process because FIS by itself doesn't really exist: "It's a group of nations - FIS doesn't say anything, FIS executes what you guys [the national governing bodies] would like to be executed. The more the national teams work together and find what they'd like to see: that is what will happen."
Anybody from the most unknown person to the Shaun Whites or McMorrises has the same chances to participate [in FIS events]"
Here is when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object: no matter how much outside parties would prefer to see an overall ranking, FIS and the WST are beholden to different people. The former works for the national teams whilst the latter supports independently run events, and neither seems ready to back down. And given the choice between the two governing bodies, it could be argued on some level that the IOC went for the side that puts an emphasis on clear qualification paths and team interests over corporate sponsors' needs. Admittedly a nation's needs might not always be that of the riders', but their coaches hopefully have at least as much interest in the snowboarders themselves as energy drink manufacturers or TV companies.
That's not to say that FIS is perfect. It remains a total headfuck as to how they could organise an event at Deer Valley, where snowboarding is still banned. Or how they could schedule their first ever slopestyle event for the same weekend as the Dew Tour back in 2011, give it World Championship status then run it as poorly as they did. Looking back at the course design and start list now, it's still laughable.
The Politics of Snowboarding; a brief history
Once upon a time, snowboarders controlled their own contests. The International Snowboard Federation (ISF) held an annual tour to crown the halfpipe champion, with legendary Norwegian Terje Haakonsen winning three times in a row.
When the Olympic Games declared that this exciting new sport would be included at Nagano in 1998, all hell broke loose. Qualification was handed not to the existing snowboarding circuit but a new series overseen by the Federation International du Ski (FIS). Yes, skiers now controlled snowboarding’s biggest event.
Terje boycotted the Games in protest but his lone stand was not enough to save the Snowboard Federation, which folded soon after. Terje helped to launch a replacement, which today is known as the World Snowboard Tour, and for a decade or so an uneasy truce was reached: the best riders would compete on the WST before jumping ship every four years to complete Olympic qualification via FIS.
Such was the success of halfpipe at the Olympics that the organisers decided to include slopestyle for the first time at Sochi 2014. Yet despite spearheading this format, the WST was – like the ISF before it – ignored in favour of FIS (who had never previously held a slopestyle contest).
The result today is that professional snowboarding is still blighted by infighting. With two competing tours, the guy in the street has no idea who the real ‘champion’ is, while sponsor-driven events like the Dew Tour, X Games and Burton Open confuse things further. What’s clear is that snowboarding has become one of the most popular – and therefore important – TV broadcasts at the Olympics. Should the riders all follow Terje’s example and go on strike? Or will the organisers finally find a way to work together? The politics continues.
Matt Barr, writing for Transworld Snowboarding, told the story of a German rider competing at the same event - Silvia Mittermüller - who competed having vocally expressed that the conditions and course were sub-standard, crashing out in the process. But crucially, she still rode, just like all the other athletes who took part in that event and subsequent ones. It shows that even if people believe that FIS isn't up to task, it doesn't matter because people are still willing to take part in order to qualify for an event as grand as the Olympics. That's the draw of the five rings.
For that reason, calling for a boycott now will probably fall on deaf ears, just like Terje's stand in 1998 didn't make a difference to anyone else. Furthermore, it has to be said that when it came to the Games themselves this last February, the course organisers did about as good as job as anyone could have in the warm conditions. Most agree that the athletes put on an awesome display, and that the twelve freestyle medals could hardly have been given out to riders more representative of the sport: Sage Kotsenburg, Stale Sandbech, Ayumu Hirano, Torah Bright, Jamie Anderson, Kaitlyn Farington... Jenny Jones. Ironically - given Terje's comments about Shaun White in the interview we released yesterday - the only rider who was highly critical of the FIS course (though admittedly with his own agenda to pursue) was El Blanco.
So is a rider-led 'solution' the best way forward from here? Is it even necessary?
The paradox in getting riders involved in organising events is that quite often - although there may be some bluster from the competitors - if you invite suggestions they'll shrug their shoulders and offer up something almost identical to what's already being served. For example, a WL contributor present at an Air & Style riders' meeting a few years ago observed the following exchange:
Air & Style judge: "So we've heard there's been a lot of complaining about the judging in previous years - now's your chance to say how you want to be marked."
Voice at the back: "We think we should be judged on amplitude."
Judge: "Anything else"
(Another long silence)
Another voice: "Errrr... How about style?"
Judge (incredulously): "So you'd like to be judged on air and style?"
Saying that the solution is simple - asking the riders what they want and mixing things up on the course to discourage 'spin to win' - isn't always that, well, simple, as Roby has experienced: "We did an event a few years ago in Špindlerův which was very creative and the first thing that happened was the riders turning up and getting pissed off. They were asking where the slopestyle course was and why this was different."
The truth is, not every slopestyle or pipe rider that shows up to an event is a Danny Davis or a Terje Haakonsen - the majority of competitors would probably prefer a three-jumps-three-rails set up or a 22-foot halfpipe as that's what they train on. Whether that's a good thing or not is up for debate, but it would take a huge upheaval for this to change. The last attempt by riders to unionise - the short-lived We Are Snowboarding (WAS) - does not inspire confidence.
One thing's for sure: the FIS of today is not necessarily the same beast that reared its head back in the 90s, or even four years ago. There has been evolution. One of the main criticisms, for instance, has been that having an extra tour added too many events, so they've scaled back to just five stops. And whether you're for 'em or against 'em, it's not just a soulless entity comprised of ski racers - there are dedicated and passionate snowboarders who have crossed the line to work for them and who (while some might call them scabs) genuinely believe they are operating in the sports' interests.
By all means call for boycotts, look at alternatives and push for a unified tour, but if you're going to call someone your enemy, at least know your enemy.