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Talking Points

Bad Blood: Competitive Snowboarding’s Lack Of Rivalries

Sporting rivalries are a sure-fire way of generating mainstream interest - is snowboarding missing out?

it may look like things got a bit ‘death-by-champagne-cork’ at the burton us open, but in reality it’s all fun and games for Jamie Anderson (left) and Spencer O’Brien. Photo: Blotto

As we approach another Winter Olympics – one that boasts a shiny new snowboard discipline to boot – expect the mainstream press to show a bit more interest in our relatively niche corner of the sporting world.

Crib-sheet-wielding journos will try (and mostly fail) to explain the different disciplines, medal prospects will be extensively profiled, and some of the female riders will feature in the inevitable “Pyeong-shwing! | Hotties Of The Olympics” compilation on tabloid titles’ Sidebars of Shame.

In the search for an interesting hook or headline, they’ll most likely hunt for juicy rivalries to detail, and then stoke – but if they do, they’ll end up more disappointed than Evil Hercules.

“the media love a rivalry. A good one can fill column inches, encourage clicks and generate comments – all of which increases the profile of the athletes and their sport”

For the uninitiated, rivalries can serve as fantastic entry-points into sports. Formula One certainly got a shot in the arm in the late 80s and early 90s, when Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were regularly pranging into each other on the track. Interest in tennis saw a similar surge a decade earlier when John McEnroe (a prick, but an entertaining prick nonetheless) challenged the dominance of Bjorn Borg.

More recently, lots of people who otherwise didn’t give a shit about boxing sat up and took notice when Floyd Mayweather finally faced off against Manny Pacquiao  – and before you assume that it only applies to sports with gladiatorial formats, note how often recent coverage of El Clasico, one of the most famous team sports fixtures in the world, went with a Messi vs. Ronaldo angle.  

Yes, the media love a rivalry. A good one can fill column inches, encourage clicks and generate comments – all of which increases the profile of the athletes and their sport. Meanwhile, with its we’re-all-friends-here approach to competition, snowboarding has barely dipped a merino-clad toe into that world (unless they exist in the world of snowboard racing, but if they do then no-one really cares).

That’s not to say that there’s never been any public friction between riders. Some of the loose cannons who led the way in the 80s and 90s doubtlessly butted heads; but in those pre-Olympic days, when the few people who had heard of snowboarding were more likely to dismiss it as a fad rather than care who won the US Open, any rivalries got about as much coverage as the top of Kojak’s head.

Shaun White and Kevin Pearce in ‘Picture This’. In a memorable shared video part, their rivalry was briefly put to one side

The first high-profile example with any potential was the one between Shaun White and Kevin Pearce, which reached its peak in 2008 when Kevin became the first rider in years to challenge Shaun’s long reign at the top. When Kevin topped the overall 2008 TTR world rankings – after, among other things, beating Shaun at the Burton European Open – Shaun infamously jetted off to a minor end-of-season competition in Switzerland. This technically gave him just enough points to edge out Kev’s total, take the title for himself, and leave the tour organisers with some explaining to do.

At the following year’s BEO, Shaun threw a tantrum after losing to Kevin yet again, and later headed down to the bottom of the pipe for a word with the judges (hopefully he stopped short of saying “you cannot be serious”).

The aggro may have been one-way traffic, but that never stopped Borg-McEnroe from garnering public interest – and with the Vancouver Olympics looming, ‘Kev vs. Shaun’ was something into which the press could sink their teeth. The rivalry never reached its full potential, however; Kevin suffered a tragic accident in early 2010, and wouldn’t compete on the highest level again.

“Are these guys and girls, who regularly put their necks on the line to outdo one another in pursuit of medals and titles, really all about the love?”

Since then, professional snowboarding has been (in public at least) all about hugs, high-fives and expert-level passive-aggression. The closest thing it’s had to a real rivalry was Shaun vs Mark McMorris in the slopestyle, after both riders won an X Games gold (McMorris in Aspen, White in Tignes) during the 2012 season.

The following year, McLovin publically questioned Shaun’s high scores, as well as his tendency to boot-grab (see video above) – but this rare case of a rider sticking his head above the parapet to criticise another remains the exception to the rule. Further examples of public beef are almost impossible to find; Seb Toots and Max Parrot tweeted about Shaun pulling out of slopestyle at the 2014 Olympics, but both were deleted soon after.

“with the contest circuit still in disarray, and wider participation among the public reportedly in decline, perhaps it couldn’t hurt for a couple of bigger personalities to break clear from the pack and engage in all-out war”

It all just seems a bit insincere. Are these guys and girls, who regularly put their necks on the line to outdo one another in pursuit of medals and titles, really all about the love? Returning to McMorris, look at the time when Max Parrot beat his score at the 2014 X Games. Whatever’s going through his mind, we’re certain it isn’t “great job, buddy!”

Needing some milk turned sour in a hurry? Mark’s your man.

It’s not to say that we definitely shouldn’t be happy with the way things are now. Painfully tedious post-comp interviews (“I’m happy with 2nd, it’s just great to be here riding with so many rad dudes”) are a small price to pay to avoid the type of mind-game bollocks you get in, say, the UFC. Plus there’s nothing wrong with contests that feature line-ups so strong that a dozen different riders have a shot at winning (unless Chloe Kim lands her safety run, that is).

But with the contest circuit still in disarray, and wider participation among the public reportedly in decline, perhaps it couldn’t hurt for a couple of bigger personalities to break clear from the pack and engage in all-out war for the top honours.

Maybe then competitive snowboarding can finally get a taste of the kind of epic, era-defining scraps from which other sports have undeniably benefited.

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