The CWord

With conflicting tours, Olympic debates and the world’s most decorated snowboarder dividing opinion, is it time to shake up our whole approach to competition?

Groupthink, the cloying instinct to adopt the beliefs and values of a subset of humanity to which you hope to endear yourself, is rife within snowboarding, and it is no more evident than in relation to snowboarding’s very own C-word: “Competition".

The drive to establish alpha status through an overt display of superiority is woven into the DNA of every living being that seeks to perpetuate its genes, from iridescent peacocks in search of a mate to blood-red poppies thrusting towards the sun.

Like a hair shirt that we have to wear during the winter to keep out the cold, we put up with competition; but it leaves us irritable, uncomfortable and jealous of the guys in boardshorts.

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But in snowboarding, we are yet to get truly comfortable with competition as the vehicle through which we establish pre-eminence. Like a hair shirt that we have to wear during the winter to keep out the cold, we put up with competition; but it leaves us irritable, uncomfortable and jealous of the guys in boardshorts.

Metaphorically speaking, snowboarding is reaching its late twenties. Yes, I know it was invented longer ago, but in reality the mid-80s saw the birth of snowboarding as we know it today, and it had its pubescent growth spurt in the 90s. As such, it’s starting to come to terms with its place in the world – deciding who and what it wants to be. Surfing, meanwhile, is the granddad sitting on the porch rocking slowly in his chair, comfortable with his life’s work and the legacy he will leave when he goes to the big hollow barrel in the sky.

This life-stage, with its choice between settling down into the structure of respectable society, or extending adolescence in the pursuit of our ideals, has left snowboarding itching and scratching, uncertain of how to balance the desire to earn respect from “the man" while still wearing its tattoos with pride. We’re faced with a dirty pint of mixed emotions regarding contest formats, the Olympics and Shaun White – and groupthink is forcing us to down them in one. However, if we were able to cast a glance sideways at surfing or be less dogmatic, we might just find the inspiration to refuse the pull of peer pressure, and order an elderflower spritzer instead. Here are my thoughts…

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The classic/classically awful 80s movie North Shore, which tells the story of a landlubbing kid from Arizona who learned to surf in a wave pool and ultimately ends up competing at Pipeline, opened a window for popcorn-munchers into the emotional wrangles of surfing’s relationship with competition and progression at the time. The protagonist, in seeking to establish himself as part of the Hawaiian surfing fraternity, finds himself rejected by the ‘soul surfers’ who pour scorn on the notion of competition and progressive/radical surfing. To them surfing is all about flow, a single-finned harmony with the wave… or in other words, conforming to the aesthetic that received wisdom considered appropriate.

Competitions should be about establishing who is the best. That way, the opposite sex clearly knows who they should mate with afterwards.

With some judicious Photoshopping of thug-rugs and mitts, that movie could be replayed today in a snowboarding context and would be every bit as germane. The acting would still be terrible, but the central conceit would ring as true today for snowboarding as it did for surfing nearly thirty years ago. Competition vs. soul. Progressive manoeuvres vs. style. What will you choose?

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Snowboarding, having snuggled into bed with the establishment (Olympics, corporate sponsors, mainstream TV, chat show appearances), seems to have woken up in a cold sweat and is trying desperately to balance the alpha instinct for competition with its fist-bump belief system.

In the wake of the Greatest Show On Earth, there has been an explosion in (or at least an explosion in the coverage afforded to) un-Olympic bro-down style competitions; events that get back to the ‘roots’ of snowboarding, favour style over spins, and are all about high-fiving, drinking beers and having good times with friends. The kind of comps we all love if we are true snowboarders.

I offer an unfashionable Darwinian-inflected counterpoint. These competitions are bollocks. Why? Because they are not competitions. Comps should be about establishing who is the best. That way, the opposite sex clearly knows who they should mate with afterwards.

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Any competition that invites only its mates, or the cool kids, or expects the contestants to make up the rules when they arrive, or doesn’t drive the contestants to do the biggest, gnarliest most difficult trick, is not a competition. It’s a get-together for the people who wouldn’t win if it were a proper competition. It may be more fun to participate in such an event, with a low-stress environment where the good times roll, but spectators want to see their gladiators fight to the death. We don’t want to see them hugging each other, we want blood. We don’t pay the gladiators to be friends; we pay them to risk their lives in the pursuit of glory.

This bloodlust kept the Roman Empire going for centuries. Imagine what would have happened to sanitation, central heating and aqueducts if the gladiators had strolled into the Coliseum and given each other a big cuddle. Fuck that. I want to see a fight.

Which is why I also feel sorry for Shaun White.

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El Blanco has been called just about every name under the sun by ‘proper’ snowboarders for the best part of a decade. His private pipes, coaching staff and milking of the corporate teat have resulted in a tissue rejection by the right-thinking shredding populous. He snowboards, but isn’t a snowboarder. Why? Because he just wants to win.

When he bounced out the top of the slush-puppy pipe in Sochi, his face looked like a computer programme that had just crashed. A frenetic scramble of microchips and binary trying to brute-force the logic of what had just happened, behind the veneer of a blue-screen gaze. His internal motherboard had been ripped out of his chest and was being urinated on by a big circle of laughing snowboarders in balaclavas and sunglasses, who knew exactly when it was cool to start wearing mitts and bring their stances in by two inches.

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Some would say that they were doing this because he is a dick.

But it is impossible to de-couple his supposed dickness from his raw desire to win. I think the reason (as a recent WL poll suggested) about half of us can’t warm to White is more down to snowboarding’s quarter-life crisis of identity, and our lack of comfort with the concept of outright competition, than it is a result of him being sponsored by Target at the same time as pretending to be a rock star.

I will again draw a couple of comparisons with the world of surfing, which is far more comfortable with the concept of competing and winning, by citing two world champions: Mick Fanning and the winningy-est winner of all time, Kelly ‘11 world titles and older than your dad’ Slater.

For the most part, Mick Fanning's dedication to winning at all costs was considered a good thing by a grown-up surfing community.

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A few years back Mick Fanning, despite being hugely talented, looked like he would be yet another nearly-man to have plied his trade in the shadow of the alpha surfer Kelly Slater. Burned by the incandescence of Slater’s dominance, Fanning could (like many others) have turned his back on competition and lived what most would consider a dream life as a very well paid free-surfer in sponsored boardshorts. Instead he forced himself even closer to the bright lights of the competitive arena. He chose a path of extreme personal sacrifice, 5am beach runs, weight training, yoga, fibre smoothies, solo sessions focusing on the minutiae of his technique… basically, the sort of behaviour for which Shaun White gets so much shit. He put everything second to his personal goal of winning the world title, and when he won he was feted. He was respected. OK, there was some flak from a few corners but, for the most part, his dedication to winning at all costs was considered a good thing by a grown-up surfing community.

Had he been a snowboarder, he would have been called a douchebag. All the other surfers would have started a gang and not allowed him to join. He would have been mocked for trying too hard.

Had he been a snowboarder, he would have been called a douchebag. All the other surfers would have started a gang and not allowed him to join.

In addition to his Phil-The-Power-Taylor-esque number of world titles, Slater has consistently won the Surfer Magazine poll (as voted by the surfing public), which is shorthand for who is the most loved surfer. I’ve never met Kelly Slater – the only things we really have in common are that we both own surfboards and have shaved heads – but gleaning what I can of the man, he seems to have all the same isolationist alpha instincts as Shaun White. He is definitely not one of the gang. He transcends the sport; his life has been shaped and dominated by competing and winning. Yet he remains loved by the core surfing fraternity.

This isn’t about the nuances of his personality versus those of Shaun White – 99.9999% of the people who have opinions about Slater or White have never met them. Besides, when filtered through mainstream media White can be as charming as Slater can be emotionally brutal. The point is that a red-blooded competitor, a guy who makes absolutely no bones about wanting to win, is revered in one sport and ridiculed in the other.

In White’s TV interview last winter with our very own Ed Leigh, you could clearly see how the Tomato was struggling to understand why everyone thought it was so uncool to try your hardest to win a competition. Isn’t that the point?

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Hey… I’m at a contest, but I don’t care about losing because I’m just hanging with my bros.

Like him, I think the whole brotherly-love, one-happy-family of friends/Frends thing is also bollocks, at least in a competitive context. It was an emotional crutch created by the guys who couldn’t win to make themselves feel less bad about constantly being sent to competitions by their sponsors, and still losing to Shaun White. “Hey… I’m at a contest, but I don’t care about losing because I’m just hanging with my bros." You know what? I don’t believe you. You want to win.

I had my suspicions re-affirmed about the closeted lust for victory when I was re-watching Travis Rice’s Ultra Natural caffeinated-drink event recently, and saw the reaction of Nicolas Müller when he fell.

In terms of his relationship with competition, Nico is at the opposite end of the spectrum from White. He has chosen a path of pillow lines, “soul" and not being judged in scores out of 100. However, when he fell in the Ultra Natural, thereby causing him to miss out on top spot to his buddy Gigi Rüf, you could see he was gutted. He really, really wanted to win. His inner footballer crept out and the mask of the bro-hug slipped, which I for one was glad to see.

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Snowboarders are every bit as alpha-status-seeking as every other collection of molecules in the universe, but they hide it really well to conform to the Groupthink that trying to beat your mates is uncool. But whether you are bezzing around the park on a slushy day, hucking off windlips, or just busting out some turns on corduroy, deep down, if you are really honest, you want to be a bit better than your mates. Because your DNA says that if you are, you are more likely to get laid. Shaun White, like Slater, like Fanning, has just spent the prime of his life taking this to its logical conclusion.

If (but it now seems more likely, when) White returns to the competitive arena, he will almost certainly do so to a pissing deluge of sarcastic 140-character missives. Still, we should respect him as our generation’s great ginger gladiator of glissé, because for the last decade he – more than any other – has ensured that snowboard competitions actually mean something.

* * *

Never is the hair shirt of competition more itchy and scratchy than during an Olympic year. Groupthink says the Games are evil – an odious corporate jockfest that packages up snowboarding in a neat plastic wrapper for the sofa-surfing masses to consume and spit out like a deep-fried chicken wing.

I think not. I think the Olympics are way more ‘core’ than just about all our other contests. Here’s why:

The Olympics are way more ‘core’ than just about all our other contests. Here’s why:

Our thought-leader Terje hates on the Olympics because the skiers are in charge, but he can’t really be considered a neutral, given that it would be hugely in his interest for the TTR/WST/Latest Acronym to become the vehicle through which qualification took place. I have absolutely no doubt that his primary objective is to do what is best for snowboarding, but he is not exactly independent.

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Putting the irksome fact that the FIS is involved to one side (which isn’t really material to the argument, it just means that the organisers are more likely to wear pastel polo shirts with embroidered logos on the back), you have to admit that the structure of Olympic qualification is completely fair – unlike the X-Games, the selection process for which is about as transparent as Al Capone’s tax return after he has spilled coffee all over it. Unlike the average rail jam, too, where to get a slot you typically have to be someone’s mate, or be in possession of compromising photos of the organiser, or have your sponsors front up some cash.

Secondly, the Olympics’ raison d’être is sporting excellence. True, sponsorship-wielding multinational corporations have found it to their benefit to be associated with such a lofty ideal, but ultimately it is about the world’s best pushing their athletic limits (before shagging each other).

The Games weren’t set up as a marketing vehicle for a fizzy drink, or as an alternative youth demographic viewer acquisition strategy for the Disney Corporation. They exist for the pursuit of a far nobler ideal: “Faster, Higher, Stronger" being their motto.

“Drink more Mountain Dew if you like watching this" doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

“Drink more Mountain Dew if you like watching this" doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Finally, the Olympics are not sullied by prizemoney. It is true that some national bodies do incentivise athletes by offering them increased funding – or even cold, hard cash in the event of success – but the Olympics themselves do not pay out for a podium finish (other than by awarding a chunk of precious metal – and I am pretty certain that when Jenny Jones exploded with joy when she realised she had clinched a bronze medal, it wasn’t because she was thinking she could make a few hundred quid if she melted it down and took it to a pawn shop).

The Olympic Games are all about doing your best; nothing more, nothing less. That’s core if you ask me.

* * *

It was watching the Olympics that made me realise that snowboarding has a major blind spot when it comes to the disciplines in which us sideways-slippers choose to compete.

Where is the Downhill?

"Snowboard cross is the quite brilliant sporting equivalent of a high-speed pub fight involving trainee superheroes who failed the entrance exam on intellectual grounds"

Whilst snowboard cross (can we say boardercross™ any more?) is the quite brilliant sporting equivalent of a high-speed pub fight involving trainee superheroes who failed the entrance exam on intellectual grounds, the only other racing that gets done in snowboarding is the parallel slalom.

How on earth did that happen? Firstly, anything synchronised or done in parallel is (as an American mall person would say) “neat", and is the kind of thing that generally appeals to nine-year-old girls. Secondly, there are only about eight people in the whole world who still wear hard boots. Thirdly, the only drama involved is someone sliding on their bum a bit and/or having a tantrum about which way their wax was brushed.

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How have we let it come to pass that “going really fucking quick from top to bottom" (which is, after all, one of the best feelings on a snowboard) has no place in our competitive landscape?

Can you imagine how incredible a full-bearded testosterone-fuelled (and that’s just the women) downhill race would be? Seeing our heroes gunning it from top to bottom at 80mph+, flying 100ft through the air, having almighty crashes, before getting up, tearing the sleeves off their shirts and killing wild oxen with their bare hands would be incredible.

Every kid knows who is the fastest (and also who is the hardest) in their school. Since when did anyone care who was the best at spinning around gracefully?

If we are all getting a bit worried that the “spinny, twisty shit" is getting a bit too close to the soft-focus lens of freestyle skiing and ice-skating, then how about this: rather than making jumps more complicated (double pipes with CND signs and rails in them) and judging criteria even harder to decode, why not just draw a start line and a finish line, then push the competitors over the edge of the precipice to see who is fastest? It’s the most basic and purest form of competition. To stress my point, every kid knows who is the fastest (and also who is the hardest) in their school. Since when did anyone care who was the best at spinning around gracefully?

Of course, Groupthink says that this would be too much like skiing and would do a disservice to the memory of Tom Sims, who fought so hard to introduce the concept of freestyle. However, the existence of freestyle shouldn’t preclude racing/going-as-fast-as-possible from having a role in competitive snowboarding. Even the Dogtown skaters used to race, and as long as lycra is banned (as it is in downhill MTB) it would be awesome. [Except for the deaths?! – Ed]

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[related_articles]Our surfing forebears, who have been through all this self-doubt and internal wrangling, have come out the other side with a good tan and a relaxed smile. They’ve realised that competition is to be applauded, and that you can want to win and still be cool. Whilst they don’t have the Olympics, they do have a well-established and respected competitive framework – which remains the basis on which just about every decent surfer needs to prove himself (before going off and free-surfing).

As snowboarders, I am pretty sure we will get there too, as we mellow into middle age. We will accept that competitions should be about winning, that Shaun White is a hero, and the Olympics have all the elements of a truly core snowboard contest. We will enjoy watching the snowboarding downhill on a Sunday afternoon with Ed and Graham, and we will get an old copy of North Shore for our VHS players to remind ourselves of what we used to be like.

Now, where is that glass of elderflower I ordered?

Competition vs. soul. Progressive manoeuvres vs. style. What will you choose?