An Olympic year always puts snowboarding’s slightly uncomfortable relationship with the Games under the spotlight. And few issues demonstrate this like Norwegian snowboarding’s pre-Sochi slopestyle conundrum.
It’s a problem of basic maths. Ten top riders. Only four available slots. As long time Olympic skeptic Terje Haakonsen put it in a recent interview: “How can this be the biggest event in the snowboarding calendar if the best riders in the world are not all there?”
We got a chance to see the effect of this first hand at the Burton High Fives, the contest that had brought us to Wanaka in the first place and the first real event of the 2013/14 Olympic qualifying season.
With the Norwegian Olympic Federation using the Burton High Fives as a pre-qualification event for Sochi, the cream of Norwegian freestyle snowboarding were in town to ride the slopestyle event.
Stale Sandbech, Mikkel Bang, Torstein Horgmo, Aleksander Ostreng, Gjermund Braaten, Torgeir Bergrem, Emil Ulsletten and Ulrik Badertscher are heavies, one and all, and on their day could all be considered podium contenders at any world-class slope event. Yet most of them will miss the cut.
Not that you would have detected any resulting tension while watching the tight Norwegian crew at the top of the course as the final played out and they waited their turn to take their runs.
The Norwegian team are a real-life example of the square peg/round hole relationship a traditional sporting concept like the Olympics has with a culture like snowboarding
That familiar action sports camaraderie, so apparent at every other stage of our journey, was also in evidence here. Yet for these guys the stakes are suddenly much higher.
And there’s something slightly odd about that, a real-life example of the square peg/round hole relationship a traditional sporting concept like the Olympics has with a culture like snowboarding. After all, during every other year of the cycle, the concept of nationality having anything to do with merit in snowboarding is simply irrelevant, as it is in every action sport.
Suddenly, every four years, it matters.
So if you’re a rider, why do it at all? For Norwegian rider Mikkel Bang it comes down to a mixture of ambition and pragmatism.
“I think the Olympics is personal really. And my career is definitely one of the main reasons I’ve considered the Olympics. Why be scared of saying it’s a career move? Do well and it would open other doors for me to basically carry on snowboarding”.
Mikkel’s situation also highlights some of the problems that still exist in the qualification process, with riders like him suddenly having to take part in FIS events to qualify.
“I’ve never done an FIS event in my life, so I have to go and do this indoor event in Holland to get points. I need to do that to get points to be able to ride in the World Cup. It’s kinda crazy”.
Mikkel’s position sums up the curious mix of ambivalence and attraction that characterises most Olympic snowboarding years.
“I’m 24 now, so it’s probably the only time I will only do it. It didn’t interest me before, but if I say no to the Olympics, who cares? I’m just going to try and do my best”
So how did the Norwegian crew get on at the event itself?
Stale Sandbech took the win with a run that included cab 12 stale and backside double cork stale and showcased the standard we can expect to see in Sochi.
Elsewhere, Ulrik Badertscher took fifth and Gjermund Braaten eighth, while Mikkel pushed it for Olympic glory a little too hard, breaking his arm on his second final run of the day.
Looks like that indoor contest in Holland will now take on more importance than ever for his Olympic ambitions.
This article is part of the Nokia x Burton Transitions Project. To find out more about it have a look at transitions1020.com