As the winter competition season nears its end, the next significant chapter in freeskiing's route to the 2014 Olympics is coming into focus. Individual qualifying likely won't commence until the 2013-2014 season, but team qualifying -- that is, the number of spots each country will be awarded in men's and women's slopestyle and halfpipe -- could be based on results posted as early as this summer.
With that in mind, and since it's still ambiguous which countries are even in the running for those spots, we spent some time recently vetting the process. From examining X Games, Dew Tour, Grand Prix and World Cup start lists from the past 18 months to speaking with a number of key players behind the scenes, an intriguing picture has emerged. Though the heavyweight nations won't be able to showcase their power as much as in other competitions, the Olympics likely will feature much more geographic diversity, which, given that the Games represent the grandest stage in sports, may actually benefit freeskiing in the long term.
One key element to the Olympic picture that has already been determined is field size. The men's slopestyle and halfpipe competitions in Sochi will include 30 skiers, while the women's events will feature 24. The maximum any nation can enter is four, so you'll probably see a weaker field at the Sochi competitions than at many of the premier events on the current freeskiing schedule, F.I.S.-sanctioned or otherwise.
For instance, at the invitation-only Winter X Tignes men's slopestyle competition last month, eight Americans earned spots in a field of 20; and at the Winter X Aspen halfpipe in January, seven Americans and five Canadians competed in a field of 16. The final World Cup standings this year included six U.S. men in the top eight and 15 in the top 30, with U.S. and Canadian women filling 17 of the top 30 places (albeit in a season when both World Cup halfpipe contests took place on American soil).
"It's top-heavy, but it's like that in snowboarding too," said New Zealand lead freeskiing coach Bruce Wells, who is also the father of Olympic hopefuls Jossi, Byron and Beau James.
You could see skiers from Belgium, Poland, Liechtenstein, even the British Virgin Islands competing in Sochi.
Added U.S. slopestyle coach Evan Raps, "Overall it probably will be a slightly weaker field than X Games, but all the top guys are the same, so it's not necessarily easier to win or easier to podium. And I do think it's a positive thing because skiers from these smaller countries wouldn't get a chance to compete against, say, [Tom] Wallisch or Bobby [Brown] otherwise."
One curious story brewing is the potential for Russia, the 2014 Olympic host nation, to be left out of the freeskiing events. That could change with the country's new commitment to the sport (the Russians recently hired Whistler pro Chris Turpin to build their program), but it's still a realistic possibility. At the F.I.S. World Championships last year in Utah, 23 nations entered at least one skier in the slopestyle or halfpipe competitions. Russia wasn't one of them.
Host countries are generally guaranteed at least one start spot, but those skiers still must meet the minimum Olympic qualification criteria of having at least 80 F.I.S. points (in pipe; minimum slopestyle points still must be determined) and a top-30 World Cup result, according to F.I.S. freestyle coordinator Joe Fitzgerald. When you consider 10th place at last summer's F.I.S.-sanctioned Winter Games NZ halfpipe contest garnered 83 points, the top-30 World Cup result seems to be the bigger hurdle if Russia wants to avoid being left out.
Skiers from 25 countries have competed in either an X Games, Dew Tour or World Cup halfpipe or slopestyle competition over the past two seasons, ranging from the elite to the obscure. Based on that track record and this year's final World Cup standings, you could see skiers from Belgium, Poland, Liechtenstein, even the British Virgin Islands competing in Sochi.
Skiers with dual nationalities are also likely to influence the nation quotas, which will be announced after the final pre-Olympic World Cup in January 2014. Grete Eliassen, who competed for Norway at the 2011 F.I.S. Freestyle World Championships, will try to qualify as an American, while Australia-born Dane Tudor, who has spent most of his life skiing in the U.S. and Canada, said in an e-mail he plans to help Australia earn as many quota spots as possible and hopes to represent the Aussies in Sochi. "What an opportunity!" he said.
One unique aspect of the qualification process is the link between freeskiing and other "freestyle" disciplines as defined by the F.I.S. Each national governing body is allowed to send 26 athletes between moguls, aerials, halfpipe and slopestyle, with a maximum of 14 men or 14 women. Given the U.S.'s strength across all disciplines -- especially moguls, where American men and women claimed five of the top 15 spots in the overall World Cup standings this season -- a freeskiing medal contender could theoretically be left out in favor of a moguls skier, though that seems unlikely.
"Ultimately," said Raps of the discretion involved, "you want to pick the guys that are hot right then and have the best chance of winning medals."
For individual freeskiing qualification, all nations are allowed to use their own system and may incorporate F.I.S. events as well as other events such as the X Games or Dew Tour. U.S. Freeskiing and Snowboarding head coach Mike Jankowski confirmed that American freeskiers will qualify just as their snowboarding countrymen do -- exclusively through the F.I.S.-sanctioned U.S. Grand Prix series in the winter of 2013-14. Each skier's best two results from the "four or five" Grand Prix competitions will count toward qualification, Jankowski said.
Other nations likely will opt for a broader system. Canadian halfpipe coach Trennon Paynter said he believes it's "very unlikely that [Canada] will end up with a selection process based solely on F.I.S. events." Greg Guenet, coach of the independent French Freeski Project, which includes a number of Olympic medal contenders in halfpipe, said: "I think that the French federation will determine the team with the F.I.S. result first, then X Games, Dew Tour and all AFP competitions."
Regardless of what system each nation utilizes, the road is long and the process remains in its early stages. "A lot can change in 20 months," Jankowski said, "so all we can do is keep working hard and having fun doing what we love to do."