Silje Norendal battling the slings and arrows of Olympic fortune. Photo: Tristan Kennedy
I have a Shit List. It contains the names of people who have wronged me or been particularly unpleasant; for my friends it is an endless source of amusement, baiting me about age old grudges that I can’t let go of. But at the insistence of my wife, who believed it was going to give me cancer, I got in touch with nearly everyone on the list to make amends.
All of them were oblivious to their perceived slights, the weight of the hate I was carrying was lifted and forgiveness was like an epiphany that let me ditch the negativity and move on. When I reached the end of the list there were only two names left: one was a man who had his henchmen dangle me off the 40ft balcony of a club by my ankles. I don’t want to speak to him.
"I have spent my career watching the sport I love slowly being bent and twisted to fit into the FIS mould of what a winter sport should be, and I have held them directly responsible for the standardisation of the sport"
The second wasn’t a person, it was an organisation: The FIS.
Snowboarding found me in 1992. It was love at first sight and I am just as passionate today as I was in the early 90s. In the mid 90s snowboarding wrestled for control of its destiny with the International Federation of Skiing, or FIS. Snowboarding lost; skiing – a sport that had originally rejected and belittled snowboarding – had become its master.
I have spent my career watching the sport I love slowly being bent and twisted to fit into the FIS mould of what a winter sport should be, and I have held them directly responsible for the standardisation of the sport. Standardisation that has come at the expense of the creativity and spontaneity which made snowboarding so great in the first place.
At the beginning of September my kids started a new school in the Swiss alps. The school gates are a fascinating melting pot of people from all walks of life, from all over the world. One morning a man called Hanno approached me and introduced himself as the head of the P.T.A. He said he understood the rhythm of my working life because he had worked for the FIS. I asked him what he did and he told me he was originally a hotdog skier and had helped build the FIS rule book and world tour, eventually seeing it become an Olympic sport. Once he had achieved that he had volunteered to do the same for snowboarding.
And like that life presented me with the most prized name on my Shit List: Hanno Treindl – in my mind the architect of snowboarding’s demise. But forgiveness and understanding had been such a revelation to me, and Hanno is a genuinely interesting guy, so consigning him to the Shit List was not an option. Instead, I explained what he represented to me and asked if, knowing that, he would accept an invitation for a cup of tea to talk about the battle for control of snowboarding from his perspective.
So here it is, a conversation with a man who’s views I’m willing to bet my house have never been heard within snowboarding.
What is your background Hanno, how did you get involved in organised snow sports?
I started in the 70s with moguls, aerials and ski ballet, which was called hot dogging, and back then it was a new movement, like snowboarding in the 90s. Kind of outlawed.
And as snowboarder I can respect that. I have a picture of 70s hotdogging being held in the same low regard by alpine skiing traditionalists as snowboarding was in the 90s. Is that fair?
Hmmm, there was a little friction. There were T-shirts floating around in Alpine saying ‘Short skis suck’. It was funny but there was no lasting controversy or conflict.
So how did you get involved in organising things? How did hotdog skiing develop?
We formed our own federations – first national ones and then an international ones – and then in the late 70s a lot of people wanted to see it become a part of the Olympic Winter Games, so we started working with a few of the national ski associations and we also contacted the FIS.
So the relationship that hotdog skiing fostered with the FIS was a natural progression?
Yes. We had developed our own series of competitions and written a rule book, we had sponsors so the first contact we had with the FIS was friendly. We didn’t try to build our own federation because we were on skis, so we figured it made sense because we were all sliding around on snow to work with the FIS. We formalised the arrangement in the early 80s and so as our involvement with the FIS grew we were able to stay in control of what was happening.
"They wanted to include snowboarding because there were a lot of people in their countries participating and getting involved. We looked into it and then at the FIS congress in 1994 it was decided that they would involve snowboarding"
That last sentence is interesting, we’ll come back to that. But let’s keep going chronologically for now. How did the FIS first get involved in snowboarding?
Of course, we were aware of snowboarding and what was happening but we never really got involved with it. Then in the early 90s five of the biggest national associations – the US, Canada, France, Italy and Germany – came to the FIS, to my boss at the time, now the president of the FIS Gian-Franco Casper. He was secretary general then. They said they wanted to include snowboarding because there were a lot of people in their countries participating and getting involved. We looked into it and then at the FIS congress in 1994 it was decided that they would involve snowboarding.
Were you at that meeting? Was it heated? I imagine there were some people who were fiercely opposed to it.
I was at the congress. There was a motion from some five, six or seven of the biggest nations, which was accepted unanimously without any discussions. The FIS is very structured, the motion had already been discussed within the council and recommended for acceptance. All motions to the congress are first discussed by the FIS Council.
So that’s how it worked on the FIS side; what was going on with the International Snowboard Federation, or ISF, at this time?
Well, in parallel to this, at the same time there was the development of the ISF. They had already contacted the IOC and confirmed that they wanted to become a part of the Games. But, from what I know of this exchange, the IOC made it clear to the ISF that they didn’t want another international federation for snow sports. Instead they wanted the ISF to talk to the FIS and find a solution.
OK, so you were looking after hotdog skiing at this time. How did you end up in snowboarding?
It was a coincidence. I was at the coffee machine talking to Gian-Franco and he said: ‘Well, it looks like we’re going to start doing this snowboarding thing.’ So I told him, ‘I can do that,’ because I thought it was cool and I liked it. I also saw a lot of similarities in the transition of hotdogging into freestyle skiing for the FIS and he (Gian-Franco) said, ‘Well, do you think you can do it?’ and I said ‘Yeah, why not’.
What was the aim? What did the FIS want to do with snowboarding?
The aim was to get snowboarding into the Olympics as quickly as possible and we managed it in four years, which had never happened before. With freestyle skiing it took eight to 12 years.
Why did it happen so quickly?
Because snowboarding was so popular and the IOC had made it very clear that they were open to it, if it was run in the right way.
"I told him, ‘I can do that,’ because I thought it was cool and I liked it. I also saw a lot of similarities in the transition of hotdogging into freestyle skiing"
Snowboarding was a very different beast back then to what it is today – it was in some respects antisocial and certainly wasn’t friendly toward the FIS or skiing. Was it an intimidating prospect taking it on?
I didn’t see it as antisocial, but I very quickly became a snowboarder. I went to the first contest on my skis and everyone gave me the fishy eye, so I realised I had to change that. So for five or six years I didn’t touch skis anymore.
Did you realise what you were taking on? Did you realise how emotionally charged the situation was?
No, no… no.
[There is a bit of a pause here, where he seems to reflect on an unpleasant memory]
I would read the magazines and I was always put up as the FIS idiot, blah blah blah. People would always say ‘the FIS only want the money’ and so on.
What represented the worst treatment you experienced from snowboarders in that period?
There were some heated discussions, demonstrations at the first FIS snowboard World Cups, trash talk in the snowboard media. What do you expect from journalists? [laughs] Nothing really out of the ordinary, if the term “Fake News" would have already existed then, there was lots of it…
Could you see those people’s points of view?
Of course I could see their point of view, but the way I see it they were too set in their own ways. They had the snowboard industry behind them driving to stay independent. I am 100% sure that if the FIS had not taken on snowboarding then the hard boots, the racing side of snowboarding, wouldn’t exist today.
Most snowboarders today would argue that hard boots and slalom should have been allowed to die…
The FIS doesn’t do that. There are not many boards sold and it’s not good business, but last year I was invited to Bansko in Bulgaria for a parallel slalom and what they are doing is absolutely amazing, how they can stay on the edge. I think it’s great that they’re still there. I have great respect for those riders.
Talking about business, do you think that the conflict that developed between snowboarding and skiing, the fact that snowboarding has something to rebel against, helped them?
Yes, it was good for everybody. The ski industry finally woke up and started making new skis, because they hadn’t changed anything for the last 30 or 40 years. All the twin tips, fat skis, that all came from snowboarding. In the 70s I had a twin tip ski with Atomic, but they forgot about it.
The popular perception in snowboarding was that the FIS was in it for the money. How would you defend the FIS from that accusation?
They’re talking about themselves, I don’t have to say more….
In what sense, the snowboard federation?
No, the sport of snowboarding at that time was poisoned with money. We had no problems whatsoever to find sponsors. It was really easy. They weren’t quite throwing money at us but it was close. I don’t want to accuse individuals within the snowboarding federation of doing things just for the money, but to accuse the FIS of that means that they were only talking about themselves.
If you look at the way the FIS channels money, I believe it is a lot more transparent than what was happening with the ISF. The FIS is an umbrella federation that re-distributes funds to the national federations. The FIS is a non profit organisation; of course it has to cover its costs, but whatever money is left over goes back to the national associations and then a small amount is placed in a foundation by the FIS.
OK, this argument is as old as the hills so we won’t get mired in it. But do you think there was a way in which the two federations could have worked together?
When push came to shove there was definitely an opportunity for them (the ISF) to work with us. But they chose the option to fight everything very, very hard, because they were hoping to win, I think they felt sure they were going to win. That made the FIS’s position very easy. It was the best thing the ISF could have done, because you know when you’re in a corner you’ve got to fight your way out, and that’s what happened with us.
"[Fighting] was the best thing the ISF could have done, because you know when you’re in a corner you’ve got to fight your way out, and that’s what happened with us"
Going into the first snowboarding Olympics in 1998 you must have known that Terje was going to boycott the games and then your first gold medallist tested positive for weed. Were you frightened it was going to blow up in your face?
Not at all, no. In halfpipe there was a mix of riders, some boycotted some participated. Gian Simmen won the pipe and he was an ISF rider. The ISF slalom guys had said they would race and prove they were the best, but it wasn’t their day and they lost. Rebagliati, an FIS rider, won and then tested positive for marijuana. But he was able to prove that it wasn’t from smoking, rather it was from second hand smoke at a party in British Columbia… [at this Hanno sits back and folds his arms, a smile slowly creeping into his cheeks].
OK. One of the things that I think snowboarders feel is that there aren’t enough snowboarders working within the FIS, that there isn’t enough engagement, that the FIS still feels removed from the core of the sport.
The way the FIS is structured you have a snowboard committee and that is made up entirely of snowboarders. Those people come in through the national associations, so they don’t come directly through the snowboard industry, from the media or a company like Burton. It all has to run through the hierarchy or structure of the national associations. In a lot of countries those national associations don’t even have skiing in their title, like Switzerland is the Swiss Snowsports or USSA, the Untied States Ski and Snowboard Association. So to answer your question I think snowboarding is really well represented within the FIS.
Ok, good point well made. Let’s go back to the comment you made about hotdog skiing and how you were really pleased that you were able to retain control of the sport. Knowing how strongly you felt about that can you sympathise with the way the snowboarders felt when they lost control of their sport to the FIS?
Well, the difference was that we wanted to join the FIS and the people who were in control of snowboarding did not… We made a conscious decision to join and they made a decision not to. Which was their right, so I have no bad feelings either way.
With that in mind do you have any regrets about what has happened to hotdogging in its transition in freestyle skiing as we know it now?
No, I think it’s fine. Unfortunately we lost an event with ballet skiing, but I think that’s a sign of the times. It seems to me now, and I remember I felt this when I left in 2000 because I was responsible for both freestyle and snowboarding... I saw what was happening in snowboarding and I tried to apply some of those changes in freestyle [skiing]. I don’t want to say that I was the prophet and I knew what was going to happen, but I told those guys ‘Why don’t you let them go fakie in the moguls?’ and they said ‘No, no, no, no’ but if you look at the new freestyle ski events, the flexibility in snowboarding has helped it progress. It’s not too restrictive.
Within snowboarding the feeling is the opposite: a lot of people feel that snowboarding has been standardised by the FIS. I look at what hotdog skiing has become and see the Chinese basically emptying their failed gymnasts into aerials who can barely ski. Do you feel that freestyle skiing and snowboarding have lost some of their soul in becoming Olympic sports?
Humans are opportunistic… if they see an opportunity and they can excel with what this opportunity provides then they will do it. It’s as simple as that and for me, personally that is the soul of things, it’s not a case of complaining about how good things were 20 years ago and how much better they would be if we had….. [trails off] Get real, live with it. Snowboarding’s simply a business that is driven by profits, not moral principles.
So your argument is that competition is inevitable and I am being nostalgic for something that cannot exist in a competitive environment?
Yes, exactly. If there is no competition why would you need a federation? The FIS exists to serve the competitive instinct. If you don’t want to be a part of that just go out and have fun. That’s what I do now [laughs].
Let’s look at the current landscape of the FIS. Snowboarding is in terms of global audience figures at the Olympics the most valuable commodity the FIS own. And there is a feeling that we don’t get the respect we deserve within the federation for this. Would you agree?
That was always a discussion we had internally. We always felt that freestyle skiing and snowboarding were at a disadvantage compared to the old disciplines of alpine, nordic, cross country and ski jumping. It is true that freestyle skiing and snowboarding have very large audiences for the Winter Games, but when you look at the period in between, it’s not. Alpine ski racing has Kitzbuhel every year and this is probably the biggest winter sports event in the world, but freestyle and snowboarding have not been able to recreate that. That is the challenge for those who are in charge of those sports now.
"The FIS exists to serve the competitive instinct. If you don’t want to be a part of that just go out and have fun"
OK, I know on first inspection Hanno’s testimony is entertaining and spirited, but a little unsatisfying. There are no revelations, explanations or apologies. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but if I was being honest (and maybe a little naive), I thought it would be more than this.
Hanno’s love of hard boots and lamenting the loss of ski ballet as a discipline gives us some clues, though. His perspective isn’t fuelled by an obtuse refusal to accept the facts according to snowboarding. Instead we must accept that Hanno – and I imagine most of his peers who for years have run the FIS and who took control of snowboarding – come from a different generation. They grew up skiing, racing and rapt by the glory of the Olympics. They accepted these tenets as the pillars of alpine culture.
If you combine these beliefs with the very well-developed, Germanic sense of order that prevails in most European alpine nations then you will better understand where the FIS were, and are, coming from. The generation of baby boomers in charge of skiing and snowboarding in the late 90s didn’t just see sport in a different way, they saw life through a completely different lens.
For me the insight that this chat with Hanno offers has given depth and perspective to exactly what happened and who the FIS are. I feel less naive, I no longer see the FIS as the cruel pantomime villain in an idealistic snowboarding fairytale who intentionally rode roughshod over our precious creative culture. Instead I see it for what it is: a federation run like a corporation.
They are not malevolent, they are just indifferent. They saw a successful product that was offered to them and they took it. The fact that they couldn’t see where its true value lay is tragic, but isn’t surprising.
As snowboarders we have to look at it philosophically, not like a Shit List, and come to terms with the reality. The FIS control the snowboard World Cup, Olympics etc so rather than whinge and complain about that we need to be proactive, look at what lessons there are to be learned from this unfortunate episode and how we can do better. A piece concerning this very subject will follow after the Games.
In the mean time I want to thank Hanno for his time, honesty and help in curing me of potential cancers.
- Ed Leigh