Halfpipe Is Still the Best Event at the Olympics. Here’s Why

As riders are preparing to drop in Beijing, our editor at large examines why Halfpipe is still the ultimate contest

When was the last time you rode a halfpipe? I mean a real 22-foot superpipe, not a slushy couple of banks in some forgotten corner of the park. It’s probably been a while, right? And for good reason. First, there aren’t that many full size halfpipes these days. They require expensive kit, specialist knowledge and a crazy number of man hours to maintain. In fact most resorts have long since sacked off their pipes to prioritise grooming the rest of the mountain.

Second, riding pipe is hard. Like, really fucking hard. Many a solid snowboarder has had to recalibrate their ability level when hitting the backside wall for the first time. If you’re getting out of the lip, you’re doing pretty well.

“So… Is halfpipe dead? I say no”

All of which has led to competitive halfpipe – snowboarding’s original freestyle format – becoming the preserve of a handful of jocks who train to within an inch of their lives at select locations around the world. “A monotonous grind,” was how none other than Ben Ferguson described it to us in WL122.

As another Olympic showdown looms into view, then – and with slopestyle and big air once again vying for our attention (not to mention the recent Natural Selection) – some are even wondering if the u-ditch has become irrelevant. Little more than a snowboarding freak show. So… Is halfpipe dead?

I say no.

Danny Davis | PC: Ed Blomfield

In fact, I put it to you that halfpipe is still THE blue riband event at the Games, and here’s why…

Simply put, there is nothing else in the sport that comes close to it for pure spectacle and drama.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “What about slopestyle? It’s amazing to watch!”* Well, sure.  I’ll concede that it’s more relatable to the kind of riding most of us do (minus a thousand or so degrees of rotation). And yes, we’ve been treated to some incredible park runs since slope made its Olympic debut in Sochi, not least Jamie Anderson’s dominant back-to-back victories, Zoi Sadawoski-Synnott’s earth-shattering last hit and the out-of-the-box stylings of Sage Kotsenburg and Red Gerard.

“The crowd is heaving, the fans are raucous, and they’re right there – pitchside”

But that’s the TV version. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of time lugging a camera up and down the hill at real life snowboard events, I can tell you that slopestyle kinda sucks as a live spectacle. The course is long and the (usually small) crowd is strung out along it, miles away from the action. To use a football analogy, it’s like watching a Champions League match at one of those half-empty continental stadiums with an athletics track around the pitch.

A halfpipe final, by contrast, is like Anfield under the lights. The crowd is heaving, the fans are raucous, and they’re right there – pitchside. A proper sporting cauldron.

Christian Haller soars above the crowds | PC: Ed Blomfield

And here we come to the drama. Into this boiling atmosphere step a select few gladiators, soaring high above the heads and flashbulbs of us mortals, cheating death with their mind-boggling tricks on the iciest and most terrifying of transitions. Now, as I mentioned before, most of these competitors are the same old faces – event after event, year after year. This is the ultimate niche format, after all. But halfpipe’s weakness here is also its biggest strength. Why? Because sport needs rivalries.

Ali-Frasier. Messi-Ronaldo. Federer-Nadal-Djokovic. It’s titanic sporting battles like these, between firmly established rivals, that capture the public imagination. Such narratives can take a decade or more to unfold, and in slopestyle – where the attrition rate amongst ‘older’ (read: 20-something) riders is matched only by a relentless conveyor belt of fresh talent – they never really get started. It’s difficult for an audience to feel invested in a show when the cast is constantly changing like that.

“Pipe, on the other hand, is more like tennis. The set-up’s the same every time, so the cream invariably rises to the top”

On top of which, slopestyle is annoyingly unpredictable. Now that might sound nuts (isn’t it awesome that anyone can win?) but bear with me… You know how the world’s top golfers are all super consistent, but there are so many variables at work over 18 holes that it’s hard to predict which of them will win the Masters, or even make the final round? Yeah, slopestyle’s a bit like that. Any of a dozen or so riders can have their day depending on the rub of the green and the pin placement/course layout (delete as appropriate). The men’s slope final this week was a case in point: pre-match favourites like Marcus Kleveland and Sven Thorgren failed to make the cut, while the final was decided by a strange twist (literally) in the form of Max Parrot’s 1440 knee grab.

Pipe, on the other hand, is more like tennis. The set-up’s the same every time, so the cream invariably rises to the top. Granted, in the women’s event that paves the way for total domination by Chloe Kim (for now, at least) but in the men’s it has enabled some great stories to emerge. On one side we have Scotty James, the typically dogged Australian heading to Beijing on the back of countless wins, but who might just have peaked a little too soon. On the other we have Ayumu Hirano, the quiet ninja from Japan, seeking vengeance for two successive silver medals (and perhaps the death of his master, who knows). Ayumu’s low centre of gravity and ridiculously casual style make him the purists’ choice, but you can’t deny Scotty is pretty damned effective at throwing that lanky frame around.

Scotty James | PC: Laemmerhirt, LAAX

And then there’s Shaun.

For over two decades now, Shaun White has loomed over snowboarding like a ginger colossus. Or one of those giant jars of Marmite that hang around in the cupboard forever. In an era when snowboarding was still finding its competitive feet, and most riders were happy to high five their rivals in the spirit of “keeping it real”, Shaun’s unapologetic hunger for medals – which went as far as building private pipes to train, pioneering the use of airbags, and even deploying underhand tactics to claim more silverware** – won him fame and fortune, whilst losing him most of his core cred.

The fact he took to wearing all black didn’t exactly help lessen his image as snowboarding’s bad guy. Like Anakin Skywalker, he was the ultimate child prodigy turned masked villain – more machine than man, you might say. And yet, and yet… When Whitelines caught up with him at this year’s Laax Open, we found a way more self-aware and relaxed version of Shaun White. He even did a sick style run that wasn’t a victory lap. So maybe, to go full Return of the Jedi, there is still good in him?

“In fact you could make the case that the best all-round snowboarders in history tend to cut their teeth on vert”

Whatever your take on the latest re-appearance by The Artist Formerly Known As The Flying Tomato, there’s no denying it makes for must-watch TV. At the Olympics this week, we’re essentially faced with a mouthwatering winner-takes-all contest between two young upstarts (Yuto Totsuka and Kaishu Hirano), the perennial bridesmaid (Ayumu), and two old dogs enjoying one last dance, Netflix style. As plotlines go, it’s the best we’re gonna get.

And hey, if all that hasn’t convinced you that halfpipe is still king, consider this: today’s pipe jocks are tomorrow’s powder legends. In fact you could make the case that the best all-round snowboarders in history tend to cut their teeth on vert: Terje Haakonsen, Kazu Kokubo, Ben Ferguson, Danny Davis, Arthur Longo… the list goes on. Bottom line: there’s no better tutor in the art of edge control than 22 feet of pure ice.

The Man Himself Arthur Longo | PC: Ed Blomfield

So sure, 99.9% of snowboarders can’t even make it out the lip. And for three out of every four years, if we’re honest, most of us don’t really give a shit. But when the lights go up on that frozen stage in Beijing, I for one will be tuning in.

And you know what, I’m willing to bet that so will you.

* I’m not even going to get into Big Air, except to say that Ed Leigh recently summed it up thus: “History will remember 2021 as the exact point when the last shreds of style and flair were jettisoned.”

** Recap: At the end of the 2007/08 season, with Kevin Pearce leading the TTR tour standings, Shaun entered a little-known contest called the Snickers Classic & Popcorn Wallride. His victory there (against a mediocre field) gave him the handful of points he needed to steal KP’s crown.

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