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Olympics And Action Sports: A Polemic

Olympic Snowboarding: '98-'06

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Snowboarding in the Olympics has changed a bit since it's introduction. onClick="window.open('http://www.espn.com/action/snowboarding/gallery?id=4912483','Popup','width=990,height=720,scrollbars=no,noresize'); return false;">Gallery »

Everyone's favorite biennial bonfire is officially burning, this time above the bucolic city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Once again, remarkable athletes you've never heard of are competing in sports you can vaguely recall, and you've either enthusiastically bought into the international competitive drama of the Olympics, or your eyes are set on perma-roll for the next two weeks. And, if you're a skater, surfer, snowboarder, bmxer or skier, you've no doubt heard a distant drumbeat that sounds a little familiar -- that would be the one banged out every two years by those obsessed with getting our boards or bikes into the largest multi-sport festival the world has ever known.

Winter or summer, it doesn't matter. The halfpipe skiers continue to demand an opportunity to call the International Olympic Committee's bluff about really not wanting any more judged events that could lend themselves to heavily sequined controversy. The surfers are taking the opportunity to make a PR splash by naming a new director to their own Olympic movement. And while the skateboarders received an official smack down a year and a half ago on their bid for introduction at the 2012 Summer Games in London, next summer will see the second annual International Skateboarding Federation-sanctioned (and Dew Tour produced) World Championships -- the establishment of which is a crucial step in eventually gaining IOC recognition.

Meanwhile, the IOC's tone-deaf attempts to hedge their bets with action sport-ish inclusions continues apace. On Feb. 21, the first-ever Olympic "ski cross" -- which, as an ESPN employee, I should be calling "skier X" even though the preferred nomenclature is "skiercross" -- will be held. I've covered the Winter X Games for more than a decade, and I like a good elbows-flying, pole-swinging grudge match on snow as much as the next wrestling fan, but the fact is that skiercross is primarily the provence of has-been and never-quite-were World Cup racers. The last time someone mistook a jock sport like ski racing for an action sport this blatantly was ... 2008, when the IOC trotted out a BMX race in Beijing.

This is not to say that the Olympics and action sports are oil and water. Despite the 1998 warnings of that snowboarding prophet, Terje Haakonsen, the inclusion of snowboard halfpipe on the Winter Olympic schedule has largely fulfilled the promise that inclusion holds for any sport: mainstream exposure on a global scale that earns the athletes their rightful place among the world's most celebrated sports heroes. Heading into Vancouver, even the crustiest of old shred dogs acknowledged that the once-every-four-years spectacle is sort of cool.

Then again, just because action sports in the Olympics can work doesn't mean it should work across the board (pun!). In the "be careful what you wish for" department, snowboarding was forced to enter the Games under the auspices of the International Ski Federation (FIS), which at the time knew as much about snowboarding as the NFL did. Hence, the 1998 introduction, which Haakonsen publicly boycotted, leading to a whiff of illegitimacy as the world's best rider slung arrows at the event from afar. It took four years to get the stink off and another four years to get Shaun White.

Twelve years later, everything seems sorted out, but look no further than the skaters to see the jumping-through-burning-hoops begin all over again. U.S. Skateboarding, a cacophonous group that might be the only place on the planet where Dave Carnie and Andy Macdonald could exist side-by-side, began its hunt for an Olympic event by fighting off a bunch of roller skaters who very nearly convinced the IOC that they should be skateboarding's international governing body. That battle pushed victory in the war back to the 2016 Games in Rio De Janeiro, at the earliest. Meanwhile, surfing's ISA has been playing nice with the IOC since 1992, which repeatedly pats it on the back and suggests it invent reasonably affordable, but technologically superior, indoor wave pools if it's serious about Olympic inclusion. Insert "North Shore" joke here.

I'm not one to argue against action sports in the Olympics on the grounds that action sports aren't really sports, but it seems to me the argument for the exposure awaiting any sport that makes it on the Olympic menu is ultimately a financial one. While there's no debating the economic windfall that someone like White creates for a sport like snowboarding (there's a reason his Burton contract following the Torino Games is widely assumed to have shattered records), the question of how skating, surfing, snowboarding, freeskiing or BMX benefit as sports is a lot less obvious.

From a competition standpoint, the past year in action sports has been without precedent. We've seen the code finally cracked for a skateboarding contest that weds mainstream appeal with core authenticity. We've watched in awe as a generation of halfpipe riders have emerged to challenge White's dominance. We tried to keep our eyes in our heads as the swell of the decade overtook the men who ride mountains in the Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational In Memory of Eddie Aikau. These, and a hundred smaller stories, provided us with all the nail-chewing drama, inspiring victories and heart-rending defeats we could possibly want from our sports.

So what, exactly, was the Olympics supposed to give us again?

For the record, I'm firmly in the "enthusiastically bought into the international competitive drama of the Olympics" camp. But that doesn't mean I want to see the deliriously misshapen cultures of action sports squeezed uncomfortably into those perfectly round Olympic rings. Tony Hawk once said, "The Olympics need skateboarding more than we need them," and the same is true for surfing, snowboarding, freeskiing or bmx. The would-be champions of Olympic inclusion can go on tinkering to get their sports in line with the IOC's kabillion-page rule book. Everyone else in action sports can go on doing what they've always done with a rule book: ignore it.