By Candice Lingam-Willgoss
In my previous posting I questioned the changing face of the Winter Games, and asked whether the competitors at Sochi were becoming closer to performance artists with the inclusion of the new more acrobatic sports such as slopestyle making up some of the Olympic programme. This weekend saw the first Snowboard Slopestyle gold medal go to the United States boarder Sage Kotsenbury, and I was glued to the screen. Firstly, without doubt the slopestyle had all the magic ingredients that would have pulled in the viewers – I actually held my breath towards the later stages of each run as the tricks got more and more extreme. However, there were more things about this sport that stood out to me following the weekends racing.
Athletes or Performance Artists
This is the first time I have actually seen the competitive version of this sport on television, and as such my appraisal that the competitors were more performance artists was based on seeing lesser versions and reading about it. Having now witnessed it first hand, my overriding thoughts on the athletes is that they have guts! and bucket loads of them. There is no doubt that this is a true adrenaline sport, with the risk taken getting greater and greater as the run progresses. They are without doubt athletes, but another thing stood out, they are “cool” they are conforming to a stereotype that sees them “fit” into the X-Games culture where they have traditionally sat. Their dress is less “uniform” more what you would see recreational boarders wearing, they also don’t look like your stereotypical athlete – in an age where sports people are trying to cut seconds off times by shaving legs and wearing the most aerodynamic kit, we see flowing locks and trendy clothing.
The development of a sporting subculture is very closely linked to identity formation and construction – this development is illustrated very clearly by the community that makes up the snowboarding slopestylers of this Winter Olympics. Classically the most significant means of conforming and becoming part of a subculture is modeling, individuals begin to deliberately adopt mannerisms, attitudes, and styles of dress, speech, and behaviour that are perceive to be characteristic of the subculture. When snowboarding first started skiers did not accept this new sport on the slopes, the two sports contrasted in several ways including how they spoke, acted, and their fashion.
When snowboarding was introduced to the Nagano Olympics in 1998 it was described as getting the trendy vote as “Its devotees do not fit into the typical image of alpine sports” (BBC Sport, 1998). Originally viewed as a one of the most anarchic sports, many boarders opt for baggy jeans; big sweatshirts; baseball caps turned backward; pierced ears, noses, tongues and even navels, they were representative of the hip-hop culture they fitted in with. Some contrast to the rather staid image of the Olympics and what other winter sports athletes were seen to wear.
A second observation I made was the way in which this sport has stayed true to its roots. While we live in a sporting world that is driven by technology, who has the fastest suit, equipment, the freestyle ski disciplines – and perhaps most prominently the snowboard Slopestyle sees athletes remain true to their very unique culture. While it pains me to admit it, boarders are seen as the “cool” kids on snow, from their clothing, to their attitude and this is something that is further magnified on the big screen. While the alpine ski racers wear a traditional ‘catsuit” not something you would expect the recreational skier to wear, the clothing donned by the racers on Saturday in the slopestyle was very much akin to what you see a recreational boarder wear, as Taggart said about boarding at the 1998 Olympics wearing official team uniform for the event is acceptable but she didn’t like the idea of having to fit into an image for the whole time she was in Nagano.
“It’s hard for snowboarders in general to accept the authority deal … I want to be unique and individual, and wear clothes that represent me,” she said. “I’ll fight it as long as I don’t get kicked out” (Taggart, 1998). What we are now seeing may be the top brand and ultra stylish but its baggy – hardly the most aerodynamic, and the long haired cool kid stereotype likened to that of the skateboarding subculture is still clearly illustrated.
What else has stood out watching the games, and this is not unique to slopestyle, but to a lot of the winter sports disciplines is the camaraderie that surrounds each mini subculture. At times it is easy to forget that the athletes are competing against each other, as the display of solidarity and support at the end of the runs and even reflected in the photos coming from the Olympic village are very different to that observed within other sports. This characteristic of many of the Winter Sports disciplines further supports this concept of there being very unique sporting subcultures at this years games.
Relating back to my original posting – what is unquestionable is that the inclusion of these more acrobatic and high risk sports will increase interest in winter sports, and have already shown that they are pulling in the viewers. These competitors are also providing very positive role models for children everywhere and are showing that there are a range of “different” sporting opportunities out there for young people to try. Jenny Jones’s medal on Sunday like Williams’ medal in Vancouver 4 years ago, will further raise the profile of Winter Sports within the UK and I hope provide the next generation with a passion for more varied sports that reflect some of the best things about being involved in a sporting subculture – the friendship, support and solidarity you can find.