Ready to Rumble | Beijing 2022 – The Commentator’s Notes

Love it or hate it, the circus of the five rings is back. BBC Sport’s Ed Leigh casts his discerning eye over the runners and riders

Above Shaun White. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images.

This article first featured in the Whitelines Annual, Issue 122. Pick up your copy here.


And so, another four-year Olympic cycle will draw towards its all singing, all dancing climax in Beijing in February. It will be snowboarding’s seventh outing at the Games – a fact which, in the wake of the ‘urban’ themed Tokyo Olympics that saw debuts for surfing, skating and BMX, brings home just how far snowboarding has come in the last 24 years. It is now part of the Olympic furniture, which us viewers can settle into like lifelong members at a Mayfair Gentlemen’s club – because despite all the politics, it still draws the biggest names in park and pipe for a showdown like no other.

“History will remember 2021 as the exact point when, for the men’s Big Air at least, the last shreds of style and flair were jettisoned”

If this WL annual has found its way into your hands, you probably have more than a passing interest in snowboarding. It’s likely that, like most passionate riders I know, you will have almost entirely disregarded the competitive aspect of the sport and found inspiration instead in the more creative heart of snowboard culture. But whether you like them or not, it’s undeniable that the Olympics offer a wonderfully convenient way to check in on the competitive scene, where the riders for whom winning is the be-all and end-all will push themselves up to – and beyond – their limits in search of a medal.

With Beijing 2022 just around the corner, where I’ll be on the mic for the BBC, I thought I’d share my pre-fight notes. These are based on the opinions of many experienced sources throughout the contest circuit. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, but in order to keep you reading, I’ll just say that this year’s Games could be the most impressive spectacle yet. Well, except for…

The Shaun Show… Photo: Sam Mellish.

Big Air

I doubt you sat down to watch the first and only FIS Big Air event of 2021 – at Kreischberg, in mid-January – with its elusive, commentary-free feed, but if you did then you’d have witnessed a critical point in the evolution of competitive snowboarding. History will remember this event as the exact point when, for the men at least, the last shreds of style and flair were jettisoned. In fact the term ‘spin to win’ could have been used to describe the entire final. Among those present there dawned a collective realisation that a page had been turned, and a new epoch of Big Air was beginning. In short, a 1620 is now the threshold to even be considered for the top five, and the big boys are all sniffing around 1800s – at which there were a few attempts on that cold Austrian night. Graceful, they are not…

“Beijing will see the last great progression of halfpipe snowboarding, as we approach a ceiling of what’s physically possible”

If you compare it with the baseline trick from the 2018 Olympic final, a 1440, then we’ve only moved on 180 degrees. That doesn’t sound like much until you look at the //type// of spin riders are doing. Almost everyone throws triple cork 1440s //[speak for yourself – Ed]// but the likes of Markus Kleveland and Sven Thorgen increasingly spin 16s and 18s flat. A corkscrew rotation is a bit of a cheat, because it reduces the amount of spin required. In a flat spin there is nowhere to hide; you have to generate a huge amount of rotation, and then stop it. Given that jumps haven’t increased in size, it means that no matter how big anyone goes, 1620s and 1800s just can’t look good. Kleveland has more time than anyone because he’s so small, but even his best 18s are not what you’d describe as a thing of beauty.

Down at Fraggle Rock. Photo: Sam Mellish.

For the men, there’s no longer any doubt Big Air is becoming less about snowboarding and more about gymnastics. Without a big shift in either the competition format, jump design, or the way judges incentivise scoring, then by 2026 the men’s Big Air won’t look too different to ski aerials.

“Slopestyle is the future of competitive snowboarding”

The women are still some way off reaching this point of rotational ‘critical mass’. Zoi Sadowski-Synott has an immaculate switch backside game, Kokomo Murase and Reira Iwabuchi are chasing double 1260s, and Jamie Anderson has that beautiful flat frontside 1080. The room for progress in different directions means that the women’s Big Air will be a more entertaining watch for the discerning snowboard fan. In terms of riders to look out for, I believe the conditions will play a huge part in the outcome of the women’s. Here are my contenders for the gold:

Jamie Anderson

Despite being 31 when she rolls into the start hut in Beijing, Jamie Anderson will still be the woman to beat. She has a huge bag of tricks, is phenomenally consistent and, as my fellow commentator Tim Warwood puts it, is ‘allergic to pressure’. I also think that she gets better when conditions get worse; it’s like she gains power from everyone else’s nerves and hesitation.

Odds on Gold?
Guaranteed podium, might struggle for the top spot. 7-2

Laurie Blouin

In the realm of thriving in bad weather, Anderson now has company in Laurie Blouin. Polished she is not, but she’s as tough as a crocodile’s nut sack and will charge in any conditions.

Odds on Gold?
5-1. If it’s icy as fuck and -20C with a decent breeze (which in Beijing in early February it’s very likely to be), get a bet on.

Reira Iwabuchi and Kokomo Murase

Iwabuchi and Murase are both the products of the airbag facilities in Japan, so the single-jump format suits them. Both of them have consistent backside double cork 1260s, but the requirement to spin more than one direction means they’ll need to have another big trick if they want to get on the podium. In contrast to Blouin and Anderson they are both tiny, so the moment the wind gets up they’re in trouble.

Odds on Gold?
4-1. Settled conditions will see the Japanese airshow go off in style.

Miyabi Onitsuka. Photo: Aaron Blatt / Red Bull.

Miyabi Onitsuka

It would be remiss not to mention Miyabi Onitsuka. Less shiny and spectacular than the ‘so hot right now’ Iwabuchi and Murase, Onitsuka has steadily been honing her craft and busted out a cab 12 at X Games to take silver.

Odds on Gold?

Anna Gasser

When Anna Gasser’s on form she’s the best in the world, but this season you could almost see her confidence evaporating. The Austrian was the first woman to land the triple at the end of 2018, and it felt logical that she would work to get that under her belt for 2022. Instead she spent the three years between Games rehabbing a string of injuries related to riding in less than perfect conditions, because like Kokomo and Reira she’s as light as a feather. She started this season well, but she was average at the Laax Open, and all but disappeared in both Big Air and Slope at X Games. Then came an excruciating moment at Natural Selection: the sight of one of the world’s best snowboarders wallowing like a beginner in a tree well, live on a global feed. A slopestyle win at a World Cup in March might have helped heal that wound, but Anna remains one of the great unknowns in terms of form and confidence going into Beijing.

Odds on Gold?
7-1. Depends massively on pre-season form and conditions on the day.

Anna Gasser. Photo: Sam Mellish.

Zoi Sadowski-Synott

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Zoi Sadowski-Synott; a fast-and-loose style combined with a stone-cold contest mentality that means she never gets flustered. Her trick bag may not be the most technical, but she can go front 10, back 10 and switch back 9. As a Kiwi she’ll also have had an extra four months training in the Southern Hemisphere, and my intel suggests she might have used that time to get a triple. With all that in mind, the only issue will be staying fit.

Odds on Gold?
3-1. Mindset of a spartan, and more tricks than a retired sex worker. The nailed-on favourite.

Now the Men’s…

Max Parrot

Max Parrot has been on a tear since he recovered from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer. He started six months of chemotherapy in January 2019, and in August of the same year he won X Games Oslo. The following January he won X Games Aspen, and in March he won X Games Oslo again. His cab triple 1800 makes him the only North American who can currently mix it with the Scandinavian wave of spinning tops, but going into the Games he’ll have to deal with the added attention that comes with his headline-grabbing story.

Odds on Gold?
4-1. All he’s missing from the trophy cabinet is an Olympic gold, and that will be a powerful motivator for such a single-minded competitor. Sadly, he’ll still have Nob-A-Day written on the base of his board…

Mark McMorris

McLovin seems to defy judging criteria; he has long refused to engage in the tricks arms race, and refused to ever consider a quad. He won the first Natural Selection stop, and then just to prove how versatile he is, went and won the World Championships Big Air with a huge and immaculate switch backside 1620.

Odds on Gold?
7-1. A long shot, but a classic. A bit like choosing vinyl over Spotify.

Billy Morgan landed bronze for Team GB in 2018, since when the tricks have got even more cray cray. Photo: Sam Mellish.

Marcus Kleveland

Marcus Kleveland is the best Big Air rider in the world, no question. Hell, as one clip last winter proved, he might be one of the best on skis too. His issue is travel; Marcus is a quiet lad who likes his home comforts and routine. In recent years he has found his mojo in the USA where he can get all the food he likes, including his favoured Elvis-style snack of two Snickers bars in a white bread sandwich – which he then microwaves. He fell to pieces at the last Games in Korea, where he struggled with both the foreign food and culture. Beijing might be more of the same, but if the Norwegian team can succeed in building a Western-style bubble around him, they will almost certainly have a gold to show for it.

Odds on Gold?
2-1 – provided they can deliver the melted Snickers sammys…

Mons Roisland

Sticking with the Norwegians, Mons Roisland is always a threat, but battles for consistency, which I believe is a simple confidence issue. He will have just turned 25 in Beijing and be in the prime of his career. He’s discovered some self-belief over the last winter, and if he can maintain that he will be a serious contender.

Odds on Gold?
5-1, with Deepak Chopra on speed-dial.

Sven Thorgren

I am a massive fan of Sven Thorgren, but for years I felt he was the perennial bridesmaid to Stale Sandbech. No more. In the last couple of winters Sven has really stepped up; he’s changed board sponsors, released some banging edits and delivered some very strong contest results. He’s arguably the only rider who can go toe-to-toe with Marcus and spin two flat spin 1800s. It feels like he has relaxed and stopped forcing it. The result is genuine joy in his riding.

Odds on Gold?
3-1. If I was going with my heart, this is where I’d put my money.

Banked kickers were the big surprise in Korea: what do the Beijing park designers have in store? Photo: Sam Mellish.


Slopestyle is the future of competitive snowboarding.

Five years ago, I couldn’t have predicted that I would be writing that sentence. Up until 2016 slope had become a predictable three-rail, three-jump setup that was courting the same rote snownastics that I’ve just lamented in Big Air. Then, slowly, they started adding transitions into the course – from quarterpipes and pipe-style takeoffs to hips and spines. Then we started to see them mix up the order of rails and jumps, and even combine the two.

“Defending champion Gerard is the snowboarder’s snowboarder; the more creative and challenging the course, the better he will do”

The first time I witnessed this in the flesh was at the Laax Open in January 2016. My jaw dropped at the final quarterpipe, and I struggled to find complimentary things to say in my commentary as some fairly big-name riders were either decidedly average, or came unstuck altogether. One transition feature, it seemed, had found out a decent chunk of the field.

There is actually a great barometer to measure this change in courses and the effect it has had on the riders. It comes in the shape of two runs: Yuki Kadono’s winner at the 2015 US Open, and Niklas Mattsson’s at this year’s Laax Open. In Vail, Yuki was the first man to land back-to-back 1620s in a slopestyle run. It took six years for the next rider – Niklas – to repeat that feat. Why? Because riders have been challenged by the courses, unable to just chase more rotation à la Big Air. I should concede here that Yuki was also robbed of the chance to build on his world first when ‘creative differences’ (think contraband) saw him unceremoniously booted off the Japanese team and stripped of his FIS competition license. Nonetheless, letting course designers go to town on the features, and then having a dialogue between judges and riders to build a fair scoring system around these unique features, has been key. Now we’re seeing the great all-round, creative riders rise to the top in slopestyle, and who does well in Beijing will depend on just what course the designers come up with.

Jamie Anderson and Zoi Sadowski-Synott

The women’s event, at least, will be fairly straightforward; it’s going to be a battle for gold between Jamie Anderson and Zoi Sadowski-Synott. Jamie is the proud owner of every Olympic women’s slopestyle Gold ever minted, and surely her plan is to bow out with three from three. But Zoi is so good, and progressing at an incredible rate. She is as strong on the rails as she is on the kickers, and just like Jamie seems to thrive under pressure. I really can’t wait for this one.

Odds on Gold?
1-1 for both. This is going to be the snowboard equivalent of a bare-knuckle fight, and I’m not calling it.

Jamie Anderson en route to slopestyle gold in 2018. Photo: Sam Mellish.

Tess Coady

As a footnote, there is one up-and-comer to keep an eye on. Tess Coady, the young Australian, is super consistent and solid on the kickers. She has a switch backside 900 and a 720 each way, which is a little off the pace – and she’s not quite there on the rails either – but like Zoi, she has a Southern Hemisphere winter to beef those up. I’m keeping an eye on her, as I think this Aussie will be ready to pounce if either Zoi or Jamie slip.

Odds on Gold?
8-1, but that’d be 2-1 on a podium.

The men’s event is much harder to call. Despite a ridiculous array of talent that has proved dominant outside the Games, both Canada and Norway have failed to reach the top step of an Olympic slopestyle podium. Instead it has been two brilliantly creative Americans (Sage Kotsenburg and Red Gerard) who have snuck in under the radar and stolen the biggest prize from under their noses.

Red Gerard was so young in Pyeongchang he had to take his teddy with him. Photo: Sam Mellish.

Red Gerard

Defending champion Gerard is the snowboarder’s snowboarder; the more creative and challenging the course, the better he will do. To that end, it’s very hard to put a number on his chances… ask me when I’ve seen the setup.

Odds on Gold?
A cagey 4-1.

Marcus Kleveland

Having spent the bulk of the last three years rehabbing a horrifically shattered kneecap, Kleveland rediscovered his mojo in 2021. With a trick bag straight out of a computer game, and the consistency to match, Marcus is as much of a threat in slopestyle as he is in Big Air (if that’s even possible).

Odds on Gold?
3-1 – but you’d be better off taking 5-1 on a double gold.

Marcus ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ Kleveland. Photo: Frode Sandbech / Red Bull.

Mark McMorris

Sparky McMorris is the ultimate competitor. Whatever he may lack in repertoire or youthful exuberance, he makes up for with sheer willpower and commitment. The fact that he rode to bronze with a broken rib in 2014 was pretty impressive, but he followed that with the ultimate comeback story. In March 2017 he hit a tree, leaving him with a broken jaw and left arm, a ruptured spleen, a fractured pelvis and ribs, and a collapsed lung. Less than a year later, he took another bronze in Korea. Imagine what he can do if he’s fit.

Odds on Gold?
4-1. I tell myself it’s far-fetched but I wouldn’t dare bet against it.

Niklas Mattsson

Mattsson is not so much a sleeping talent as a medically-induced coma of genius. Long periods of middling results (and a conspicuous lack of invites to the big comps) are interspersed with groundbreaking winning runs. Quiet and introspective, Niklas is frighteningly talented, so if he turns up for Beijing then Kleveland will have a fight on his hands.

Odds on Gold?
6-1 for the Swedish snowboarding savant.

Sweden’s Niklas Mattson – will the winner take it all? Photo: Sam Mellish.

Dusty Hendrickson

If history repeats itself and we see another creative American rider bag a surprise win, then it will be Dusty Hendrickson. This kid is an absolute joy to watch; a proper showman with a brilliant bag of leftfield tricks that he’s not afraid to send. He’s young and hungry, so while his results suggest he’s a little way off the pace, a year is a long time for a developing rider to make up ground – especially when he’s hanging out with new team-mate Sven Thorgren.

Odds on Gold?
9-1, but I’ll shorten those if his spring/summer and early season riding pays off.

Rene Rinnekangas

The one person who //everyone// would celebrate winning is Rene Rinnekangas. He’s hit the podium at the X Games, World Cups and the World Championships, but hasn’t yet managed a high-profile win (aside from his street-based victory at X Games Real Snow 2020). If the course designers really push the boat out then I truly believe this could be Rene’s moment.

Odds on Gold?
8-1 and all fingers and toes crossed that this scenario plays out.


This is going to be the best halfpipe final of all time. For the men. Chloe Kim is so far ahead of the pack in the women’s event that she has at least another cycle of snowboarding being her side hustle before she has to actually start trying. She probably won’t even have to train until after her gold in 2026. It’s a shame, because all the greats need a nemesis who pushes them to find their limits.

She Kim. She saw. She conquered. Photo: Sam Mellish.

Meanwhile in the men’s event, the stage is set for a truly gigantic showdown. We have a writhing, venomous snake pit of rivalry between four of the greatest pipe riders in history. The big spoiler at any pipe contest is the pipe itself, but because of the consistently cold temperatures in Beijing (average -4˚C in February) it should be close to perfection. We’re talking precision-German-engineering-with-ice-coping levels of detail – which means there will be nowhere to hide, and no excuses for anyone.

So, who’s in the mix?

White. Teeth. Photo: Sam Mellish.

Shaun White

At the grand old age of 35, Shaun White is still the daddy. Anyone who has followed my musings over the years knows I am not a fan – but with each Olympic cycle, he is shutting down haters like me. Time and again he proves just how good he is, how hard he’s prepared to work, and what he’s prepared to risk in pursuit of another gold.

“If things don’t go his way in Beijing, Scotty James could be one of Olympic snowboarding’s great tragedies”

Last winter he came out of cryogenic hibernation again (he is physically only 24) to throw a 1440 at the Aspen World Cup. It is a testament to just how far ahead of his time Shaun was that he has managed to stay competitive for at least seven years beyond everyone else’s sell-by-date. To put it in perspective, Shaun started his career competing against the likes of Danny Kass and Ross Powers, and has retired at least five generations of pipe riders during his career.

However, the fact that he threw a 1440 in Aspen and ended up in fourth tells you everything you need to know about what it’ll take for him to claim a record fourth gold medal.

Odds on Gold?
5-2 He’s going to have to conjure tricks at a Penn and Teller rate to pull this one off. But he is Shaun White…

Ayumu Hirano

The most prominent of Shaun’s two Japanese nemeses is Ayumu Hirano, the first man to land back-to-back 1440s. Like Shaun, Ayumu has been virtually invisible since the last Olympic final, because (again, like Shaun) he wanted to compete in skateboarding at this year’s summer Olympics – a feat only he managed. In snowboarding, Ayumu has only competed once since 2018; he cleaned up at a low-rent Rev Tour event in February, just to keep his FIS points up.

Odds On Gold?
4-1. The Tokyo delay has cost him a winter, which means his switch backside game won’t be as strong as it could have been.

Hirano words for how big this jump is. Photo: Sam Mellish.

Yuto Totsuka

The other Japanese contender is the rookie Yuto Totsuka. This 20-year-old is on an absolute tear, and doesn’t have a chink in his armour. He only has the one 1440 so far, but he also has a cab 12 and a switch back 10, which he can link back-to-back before finishing with a back 12 and front 12. Even if you don’t know the tricks you can just add up the numbers… and there is only one repetition of spin direction! This is just insane, and explains why he won every pipe contest in 2021. In practice for the Rev Tour comp, my spies said they saw Ayumu working switch backside spins relentlessly. That is the reality for Shaun and Ayumu; Yuto is such an incredible all-rounder, they will have to bring switch backside to the table. Amazingly, the 1440s alone will no longer cut it.

Odds On Gold?
1-2. Yuto is the first to breach the 6000 degree barrier (I just made that up, but it’s true – Shaun only made 5940 in Korea) in a single pipe run. The clear favourite.

Scotty James

That leaves one more. If things don’t go his way in Beijing, Scotty James could be one of Olympic snowboarding’s great tragedies; a cautionary tale of how timing is just as important as ability – perhaps more – if you want to win gold. Scotty lost out to Ayumu and Shaun in Korea because he didn’t have a 14. Fuelled by frustration and thwarted ambition, he responded by racking up eleven consecutive wins over two years. His streak ended in February 2020 when Yuto, his long-time sparring partner, finally bested him in Calgary. They are still very close, but Yuto has had it all his way in 2021. If Scotty wants to win he’ll need Red Bull’s entire budget and all the snow the Southern Hemisphere can muster to build a worthy training facility, because he has some work to do.

Odds On Gold?
A heartbreaking 5-1. There’s even a chance he won’t make the podium.

Scotty James enjoy the view down under. Photo: LAAX.

I believe the gold medal-winning run in Beijing will see the last great progression of halfpipe snowboarding, as we approach a ceiling of what’s physically possible in the current superpipes. Without another increase in the size of the pipe or a change to the competition’s format, the insatiable push for progression is going to slow. Combine that with the immense cost of building and maintaining a superpipe and it will become more and more difficult to develop talent. So, settle in and relish the spectacle of Beijing, because I think it will be remembered as the last of the great heavyweight title fights in halfpipe’s golden era.

I’ll see you in Beijing.

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