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Snowboarding And Despots: Where Do We Draw The Line?

“Who cares? Just ride.”

It’s not always expressed so succinctly, of course; sometimes it takes the form of a keyboard-melting essay about how the simple joy of turning, or scoring first tracks with your friends, is what it’s really about.

But as sure as day follows night, words to that effect will appear in the comments underneath any article about snowboarding’s competitive structure, or the role played by energy drinks, or pros weighing in on politics.

Even the less controversial pieces aren’t immune. What stance angles do you prefer? Who cares, just ride. Who’s got the best method? Who cares, just ride. Who’s your favourite snowboarder? Who cares, just ride – the implication being that nothing really matters, and we should all just share gifs of rad stunts and leave it at that.

It follows that some people will have greeted the news that a group of pro snowboarders visited North Korea in January – or that speed-record hoarder Jamie Barrow has just completed his own trip – with the same shrug that they’d offer a press release about a new format for the World Snowboard Tour.

If that’s the case, here’s where you get off. Enjoy your gifs.

“If even one person reads that story and, keen for an edgy ‘adventure’ of their own, books a similar trip to North Korea, it’s a victory for the regime”

For the rest of us, it made for unsettling reading – not least that the trip included a visit to the giant, gold statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. The country’s two previous leaders were responsible for the deaths of millions – most the victims of starvation, plus a few political opponents – while they crafted a personality cult and made the DPRK one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet.

The Masikryong ski resort was built as part of current boss Kim Jong Un’s focus on increasing tourism, and he’d no doubt be delighted to learn that some high-profile Westerners had dropped by – but the fact remains that some of the work required to keep it going is being carried out by children.

Shouldn’t this be beyond the pale? The recent visitors made sure to highlight the plight of the people they’d observed, but is that justification for playing so readily into a dictator’s hands? If even one person reads that story and, keen for an edgy ‘adventure’ of their own, books a similar trip to North Korea, it’s a victory for the regime.

“Going by current form, it’s possible that the only viable venues for future Winter Olympics will be nations with sketchy human rights records”

This issue doesn’t end at the demilitarized zone; Going by current form, it’s possible that the only viable venues for future Winter Olympics will be nations with sketchy human rights records. As ridiculous as it is that snow-starved Beijing won the bid host in 2022, the only competition came from Almaty, Kazakhstan – a country that last year was ranked 160th out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index. Governance there makes Putin’s Russia – the 2014 hosts – seem positively transparent, and yet they almost bagged one of the biggest events in sport.

Whether or not that regime’s reputation would have been too unsavoury for the athletes is in doubt; when questioned about the Russian government’s treatment of homosexuals in the run up to Sochi, one rider in the slopestyle simply replied, “I’m going there to do a job”. It’ll be interesting to see where the line exists in future, if it even exists at all.

“Visiting and publicising Masikryong gives the regime legitimacy that it hasn’t earned”

If snowboarding is all about ‘freedom of expression’, then that includes the freedom to make some turns in North Korea if you really want to – as well as the freedom not to give a damn either way. But imagine for a moment that Kim Jong Un opened a state-of-the-art movie studio in Pyongyang – would any self-respecting film-maker even consider accepting an invitation to use it?

Were the snowboard world to boycott the ski resort, it’d be unlikely to disappear – no more so than the country’s similarly-underused water park or golf course. Still, visiting and publicising Masikryong gives the regime legitimacy that it hasn’t earned, so we should be giving it a wide berth.

What do you think? Are countries like North Korea fair game for a shred, or is it better to boycott? Leave your comments below – even if it’s just “Who Cares, Just Ride”…

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