Last Thursday night, in a ground-floor conference room at Copper Mountain, Colo., roughly 40 people gathered around a table to discuss some of the most intriguing questions leading up to freeskiing's 2014 Olympic debut. Namely: How, where and when will the athletes qualify to compete in Sochi?
In an informal panel discussion led by Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP) co-founder Michael Spencer, the attending group of athletes -- Kaya Turski, Jossi Wells, Jen Hudak, Colby West and Kristi Leskinen, among others -- as well as agents, coaches, judges and parents learned a few things about the likely road to the Olympics. For starters, the journey could wind through as many as eight or nine nations during the 18-month qualification window stretching from July 2012 to January 2014.
Konrad Rotermund, who works with International Ski Federation (F.I.S.) freestyle coordinator Joe Fitzgerald, represented the world governing body at Thursday's meeting. He said eight viable countries have expressed interest in hosting an Olympic-qualifying World Cup. They include the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Finland, Switzerland, France and 2014 host nation Russia, which will stage the traditional "test" event leading up to the Games. In addition, Voss, Norway, is slated to host the 2013 F.I.S. Freestyle World Championships.
"With recent news of what's going on over in the snowboard world," Spencer said, "I think our biggest thing is we don't want athletes to have to choose one event over another strictly because of Olympic qualification. Letting the athletes choose if they want to skip an event is OK, but I think forcing them to skip an event is tough."
As such, one of the meeting's goals was to explore the possibility of turning already-existing events into World Cups, as the F.I.S. did with three U.S. Grand Prix competitions this winter -- halfpipe contests at Copper and Mammoth, and the slopestyle event at Mammoth. "There isn't a reason why the New Zealand Open can't be the New Zealand Open and a World Cup, in my mind at least," Spencer said. "It's already a F.I.S. event."
To which Rotermund cautioned: "What was just done [with the U.S. Grand Prix] was quite a giant leap, so we're just hoping we don't fall back into the cavern. Whether you get any more, I don't know."
Things get complicated when you consider there are already seven major events on the Northern Hemisphere winter calendar: the Winter X Games in Aspen and France, three Dew Tours and two Grand Prixs. When you factor in travel logistics -- i.e., trying not to go back and forth between the U.S. and Europe more than is necessary -- it becomes even more muddled.
The AFP, which sanctions a world tour and has become freeskiing's de facto governing body over the past three years, is likely to sanction any additional World Cups to make them sustainable for the long term, Spencer said. That way, there is a lower risk of a F.I.S. World Cup in Japan, for instance, losing its relevancy in non-Olympic years.
"This whole sport was driven by these athletes. It still is, and they're the ones who dictate it. I think everyone wants the same accomplishments, we just need to keep having open conversations."” --Michael Spencer, AFP co-founder
"It doesn't make a lot of sense for [additional World Cups] to just pop up on top of an X Games or other events that have been there and supported our industry," Spencer said. "On the flip side, when they do come up, the idea is for us in this room and the athletes and everyone, to collectively make those World Cups legitimate events. And also make them be sustainable if they're good events in good locations. This is supposed to be a global organization and a global sport. We want to keep those events sustainable after the Olympics."
One way to do that, said Jeremy Forster, director of the national governing body known as U.S. Freeskiing, would be to "change the World Cups so they're actually relevant to the sport. I think [the F.I.S.] wants World Cups to be very consistent between cross country, alpine, whatever, but the reality is it doesn't need to be and it shouldn't be. So if it can be a different model for halfpipe and slopestyle, and the organizers are willing to do that -- meaning no [free] lodging, being able to charge an entry fee, putting more money toward prize money so it's on par with the Dew Tour and the highest standard events -- it seems like a model that can be pretty successful."
Moving forward, Rotermund urged the AFP -- whose reps at the meeting also included head judge Josh Loubek and general manager Steele Spence -- to draft a schedule of events for the 18-month Olympic qualification period, and present it to Fitzgerald for F.I.S. input.
As has been the case thus far, Spencer intends to lean heavily on athlete feedback as the schedule takes shape. "This whole sport was driven by these athletes. It still is, and they're the ones who dictate it," he said. "I think everyone wants the same accomplishments, we just need to keep having open conversations."