SOCHI, Russia -- So, what did people think?
Friends and colleagues back home have asked me that question several times over the past two weeks, especially those with a vested interest in the sports of freeskiing and snowboarding. What did everyone think of the newest Olympic events? How have they been received? Did anyone watch?
From inside the Olympic bubble, those are tough questions to answer. I don't have an awareness of how the American public has perceived much of anything that took place, nor do I know what stories are being told during prime-time broadcasts of slopestyle and freeski halfpipe or if the names Sage Kotsenburg, Jamie Anderson and Joss Christensen are becoming those of the household variety. I can only attempt to answer those questions through the prism of my own experience.
I arrived in Sochi late on Feb. 4, three days before the Olympic flame was lit during the opening ceremony. That day, the first snowboard and freeski slopestyle practices were held, Norwegian Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone, Shaun White banged up his wrist, and Canadian rider Seb Toutant told reporters the landings felt "like jumping out of a building." I walked into a tornado.
The international media were already skeptical of slopestyle, which NBC's longtime Olympic host Bob Costas introduced to the world as "Jackass-worthy stuff they invented and called Olympic sports." Now the athletes were complaining, stories about the danger of the jumps were overshadowing everything else, and to top it all off, media darling White announced he was pulling out of the competition. Really, there was nowhere slopestyle's first date with the five rings could go but up.
In the media mix zone before Thursday's qualifiers, I overheard reporters asking riders if they believed their sport was the most dangerous in the Olympics, if they thought the event should be canceled, if they thought someone could die on the course. I was standing next to a Canadian reporter who asked Toutant how he had become so good so quickly, considering his sport was new. "It's not new," he said. "It's new to the Olympics. It's new to you."
But then the contest started. Although inconsistent judging made it difficult to follow what trick beat what -- even for the athletes -- the action was fantastic. So were the athletes, who stopped to talk with reporters after most of their runs and were thoughtful in their conversations. Despite the questions, they realized most of the journalists covering the Olympics weren't familiar with their sport, so instead of rolling their eyes, they made an effort to educate them, answer openly and display their personalities. After Costas' comments, many of them felt a lot of pressure to show the world not only that their sport is creative, athletic and thrilling to watch but also that they are world-class athletes who deserve to share a stage with the likes of bobsled drivers and hockey players. I believe they very much did.
Much will be discussed and hopefully improved in the lead-up to the next Olympics. Although the course was safe by contest day and allowed for progressive competition in both skiing and snowboarding, it did not, in the words of Australian rider Torah Bright, "live up to the level of the riders."
We are the best in the world at what we do," she said, "and that was not the world's best course."
Had FIS hired the best course and halfpipe builders in the world, we would not have spent the majority of the first week writing about oversized jumps, mismatched landings and a poorly constructed halfpipe. Skiing and snowboarding are outdoor sports, and athletes who compete in them expect to deal with changing weather conditions. What they should not have to adapt to is inadequate courses on which to compete.
The judging was consistently inconsistent and difficult for first-time viewers to follow, as were the tricks themselves. Heck, the judging was difficult for the athletes to follow, and that needs to be addressed. I believe it is possible to call and explain tricks without overwhelming a first-time viewer. But I hope America's interest has been piqued and more people will tune in to watch the X Games, Dew Tour and Grand Prix contests over the next four years, so by 2018 everyone's learning curve won't be as steep.
The freeskiing events, which started nearly a week later, made a smoother transition. The men's and women's slopestyle contests were two of the most progressive in history, and the U.S. medal sweep on the men's side erased memories of the men's snowboard halfpipe contest two days earlier, when all four U.S. riders, including White, failed to make the podium.
White not earning a medal in Sochi will do little to harm his reputation as one of the greatest contest snowboarders of all time. It will not change the fact that he will spend his spring on tour with his band, Bad Things. What it did, however, was open up slots on "Letterman" and "Ellen" and inches in The New York Times for the athletes who did come through. As Kotsenburg said in every U.S. TV interview I watched online: "Now the world will know there is more to snowboarding than Shaun White." And that will be good for the sport.
In the halfpipe, U.S. favorites David Wise and Maddie Bowman both won gold. In fact, of the nine gold medals U.S. athletes won in Sochi, snowboard and freeski athletes provided six of them, and 12 of 28 total medals. The 23-year-old Wise won with his wife in the crowd holding an oversized photo of their 2-year-old daughter, Nayeli, and Bowman did so after dedicating her run to late freeskiing pioneer Sarah Burke, whose parents had flown to Sochi from Canada to watch their daughter's friends compete and support the sport she loved.
Without White siphoning the media coverage, writers wrote about how Kaitlyn Farrington's father sold cows from their Idaho dairy farm to fund her trips to snowboard contests and how Christensen's win fulfilled the dream of his father, who passed away in August. They wrote about Gus Kenworthy's quest to rescue stray dogs from Sochi and, most importantly, asked if two triple corks should beat a backside 1620 Japan. Even if they didn't want to care about the Olympics' newest sports, by the end of the two weeks, they did. But according to most of the writers I spoke with, they still don't quite understand slopestyle. "I like it. But unless someone falls, I don't know what makes one run better than the next" was a common refrain.
The athletes were also getting to know the Olympics. Many of the more experienced first-time Olympians said they didn't think they would care about an Olympic medal, that they would treat this like any contest and, win or lose, it wouldn't change their lives. They still have the U.S. Open, the Dew Tour and the X Games. Then they arrived in Sochi, and the largeness of the event, and viewing it from inside the Olympic bubble, changed their minds. They were stressed, tired and overwhelmed. Many of them realized medals did matter, or at least performing to the best of their ability on what is still the world's biggest stage did.
In a post-contest interview with New York Times reporter John Branch, Danny Davis said he hadn't expected to care about how he performed at the Olympics. But then he fell in both of his runs during finals and couldn't believe how disappointed he was.
"This is a blown-out-of-proportion contest. But I realize it's blown out of proportion because it's the one event that the American public knows," he said. "All in all, I think the Olympics is pretty darn good for snowboarding."
And slopestyle and freeskiing are good for the Games.