Snowboard History

Defining Moments: Nagano 1998: Snowboarding becomes an Olympic sport

Words: Matt Barr
Photo: Getty Images

During the early to mid 90s, rumours that snowboarding would become an Olympic sport had been doing the rounds with some regularity. Then came the confirmation: pipe and GS would be official medal events at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.

Here was the starkest proof yet that our sport – for so long mocked, reviled, copied, hated, loved, misunderstood and even outlawed – was about to cross decisively into the mainstream. It was hugely important news, and became the hot topic of riders the world over. Absolutely everybody had an opinion on it. In interviews, top UK riders of the time mused about how it would feel to carry the Union Jack at the opening ceremony. US magazine Snowboarder carried a particularly profound article entitled ‘Can We Give The Olympics Back?’ that fretted, like a protective mother, about the effect this outside influence would have on our development. And what role would the ISF have in this anyway?

At this time, snowboarding was essentially ‘run’ by the International Snowboard Federation, a body that had been established by snowboarders for snowboarders. When news of the sport’s inclusion into the Olympics broke, it was widely (and perhaps naively) assumed in the industry that the ISF would be given the responsibility of running the qualification system that would enable riders to take part. But this was not how the International Olympic Committee, who run the Games, saw it at all. They decided to give the responsibility to the Federation Internationale du Ski, or FIS, instead. To them it was simple – snowboarding is held on snow, so it must be a discipline of skiing, right?

To say this had something of a seismic effect on snowboarding is a massive understatement. In effect, riders who wanted to compete in the Olympics were presented with a stark choice: support the ISF and pass up the biggest platform of their career, or go down the FIS route and drive a nail into the coffin of the organization that seemed to best represent the interests of snowboarding. As everybody knows, there was only one dissenting voice, and it just so happened to belong to the greatest snowboarder of all time: Terje Haakonsen. Terje soon announced that he wouldn’t be taking part in Japan (famously likening the International Olympic Committee to the mafia), a decision that sealed his legendary status in snowboarding, because at the time he was the clear favourite for gold and many had assumed that victory in the pipe would put a nice cap on what was – even then – an exemplary career.

I was lucky enough to interview Terje a couple of years ago, and I asked him if he still thought the IOC/FIS arrangement is a bad thing. “Yeah, I think the organisation is a bad thing. I never said the Olympics is a bad thing, but the IOC working with FIS is a bad thing. When you look a little deeper and look at how the qualification system works – who runs the event – and you look at the TV production, and then the little things – like who gets to qualify from each country – then you have to say those are strange things.”

Of course most ordinary snowboarders, who wouldn’t be going to the Olympics anyway and so would never be asked to make this pact with the devil, sided with Terje, and as the Games approached the general feeling was one of skepticism. With such a background, it was difficult to feel enthusiastic about snowboarding’s biggest ever public platform. In the pipe event, Todd Richards and Daniel Franck were expected to walk it – and who cared about the GS anyway? The sour feeling was compounded by rumours that the host resort, Nagano, didn’t usually even allow snowboarding. I was doing my first season when the event took place, and along with some friends I went heliboarding, in what we liked to think was our own personal v-sign to something that didn’t represent the true nature of snowboarding. Ah, innocent days…

What Happened Next?

Ross Rebagliati became snowboarding’s most famous caner by taking the GS gold, failing a drug test for passive pot smoking and then getting the medal again anyway. Swiss pro Gian Simmen came out of nowhere to win the first pipe gold, to mass reactions of ‘who?’ from the core crowd. He went on to become one of the decade’s most respected pipe riders – not least for being the nicest guy in the sport. Nicola Thost won the women’s pipe gold, while Karine Ruby took the silver. Snowboarding returned to the Olympics four years later, at Park City

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