Hold on, you could argue, hasn’t sport always placed its biggest and most attractive personalities on a pedestal? Mohammed Ali, George Best, Christiano Ronaldo, Usain Bolt – the list of charismatic superstars goes on. This is true, but the foundation upon which those guys built their reputations was always results. I mean, as cool as he is, would anyone hire Bolt to advertise highspeed broadband if he wasn’t undisputedly the fastest man on earth?
Snowboarding, by contrast, doesn’t really place much value in traditional stats. Stuck with a contest circuit that’s about as easy to follow as a Swedish crime drama, social media metrics offer the next best thing to a world ranking system. And while few could argue that a guy like Halldor Helgason doesn’t deserve all the praise he gets, it’s plain as day that those on the next tier down (the kind of riders who, in football terms, would be called ‘squad players’) can gain greater rewards than their equally – or perhaps more – talented peers if they’re big on the ‘gram.
Is that actually sport, I wonder, or more of a personality contest?
You can’t really blame the brands for all this. With budgets increasingly under pressure, it’s only natural that they’ll recruit a proactive ‘influencer’ to sell their product over a quiet kid that needs a whole marketing campaign behind them. And you certainly can’t blame the riders who’ve made a success of playing the new media game – they’re simply moving with the times, striving to make an impression upon a video landscape that’s become saturated. To be honest, the rest of us are as complicit as anyone, since we demand more access into our heroes’ lives than ever.
But for me, something has been lost along the way. Like an easy Tinder date, there’s no mystery anymore. He who shouts loudest or bares their flesh wins. More importantly, sporting talent alone is no longer enough to reach the top; you need to be outgoing too. When this happens – when athletes are rewarded for their ability to take a cool selfie, pose with a Red Bull can or choose the right emoji as much as their skill at chucking 900s – they are no longer competing on a level playing field.
So what’s the solution? For me, it comes back to our dysfunctional and fragmented contest system. As Terje, Ed Leigh and others have suggested, we need a unified world tour that better reflects the diverse terrain that makes snowboarding so special, with a transparent qualification system (I”m looking at you, X Games) and a clear path to the top, regardless of reputation. Such a tour might finally win a greater share of our collective attention, while dividing the spoils more evenly.
“When athletes are rewarded for their ability to take a cool selfie, pose with a Red Bull can or choose the right emoji as much as their skill at chucking 900, they are no longer competing on a level playing field”
Surfing provides the template here. Sure, our wave-riding brethren are not immune to the distorting power of social media themselves, but the WSL and its feeder circuit the WQS at least offer surfers – media savvy or not – the chance of a career based first and foremost on ability, with a straightforward leaderboard that earns the respect of the wider scene. Financial rewards over and above WSL prize money – for successfully selling the dream, if you like – are an optional bonus rather than the primary role of an athlete.
Like surfing, snowboarding will always remain a lifestyle to most of us, but I like to think its professional element can aspire to be a true sport – with all the rules of fairness that entails. But as long as we value follower counts, video views and subjective ‘rider of the year’ accolades over simple podiums, we’re not quite there.