For snowboarders, it's the same old season opener. For skiers, though, this week marks the beginning of a new era in halfpipe. Today, elite halfpipe skiers from eight countries drop into Colorado's Copper Mountain halfpipe to compete in qualifying rounds of the first-ever Ski Halfpipe Grand Prix.
For years, the Grand Prix series, run by the US Ski and Snowboard Association, featured only snowboarding competition. Changes began this fall after the International Skiing Federation (FIS) officially added ski halfpipe to its list of proposed additions to the program for the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia. Amid growing speculation that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would accept the FIS recommendation on ski pipe, the Grand Prix added skiing this fall. The addition is meant to expand ski pipe's participation in qualifying series sanctioned by FIS, a major criterion for gaining Olympic status.
Pipe skiing has taken steps in the past to broaden its involvement in FIS-sanctioned competition. FIS World Championships (another Olympic criterion) have been held for ski pipe since 2004, and the next one (which, for the first time, will also include ski slopestyle) is taking place at Deer Valley Jan. 30-Feb 5. World Cup halfpipe has also taken place on odd years with the last being in 2009 in Inawashiro, Japan.
Prize purses at these events were small in comparison with professional contest series like the Winter X Games, the Winter Dew Tour and the now-defunct Ski Tour. With Olympic competition a practical nonentity during that time, those FIS-sanctioned contests were less well attended than their strictly professional counterparts.
It's still not a sure thing, but a whiff of 2014 Olympic glory has got the foremost for-cash competitors breaking rank for the inaugural ski Grand Prix. Most notably, Americans Simon Dumont and Colby James West will compete in the first FIS-sanctioned contest of their careers at this week's Grand Prix. Big Air phenom Bobby Brown also makes his FIS debut this week make that his halfpipe debut.
To say it's all Olympic dreams that sparked the crossovers would be a little misleading. The Grand Prix prize purse totals around $200,000 (for both sports), a figure on par with the nonaffiliated contests. One major difference has sparked talk, however: drug testing.
In accordance with FIS Anti-Doping Rules, Grand Prix podium finishers, along with one randomly selected competitor from each event, all must submit urine samples immediately after their final rounds have ended. These samples are tested for substances on the World Anti-Doping Agency's Prohibited List. The list runs a gamut of substances from performance enhancers like anabolic steroids, growth hormones and stimulants to non-performance enhancing controlled substances like narcotics and cannabinoids.
Although drug testing like this is commonplace in more established sports, it is still a novelty in halfpipe skiing. Until now, none of the sport's major venues Winter X and Dew Tour, for example have ever tested competitors. The prevailing wisdom has been that, given the nature of their sports, action sports competitors ought to derive little benefit from the strength gains associated with performance enhancers. But if banned substance use can be an issue in curling, and even billiards, you can bet it has the potential to be an issue in a sport as physically demanding as halfpipe skiing.
For skiers that have already competed in FIS-sanctioned pipe events, testing is already standard. "I can't even count the number of times I've been tested," says Rosalind Groenewoud, a Canadian competing in the Grand Prix who resides near the Olympic Oval in Calgary. "My family used to joke that I got tested every time a new speed skating record was set since it was convenient for the testers to stop by."
Despite their frequency, the tests don't faze Groenewoud. "It really doesn't bother me," she says. "It's just part of being an athlete."
ESPN Freeskiing will be on site at Copper's Grand Prix this week, bringing you the latest results, photos and videos. You can also watch live coverage of the Grand Prix here.