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Going Nuclear

Ed Leigh previews Big Air snowboarding's Olympic debut

Anna Gasser hones her Big Air skills at Stubai’s Prime Park Sessions. Photo: Pally Learmond

‘Snowboard Big Air Will Debut At The 2018 Winter Olympics’

When this statement was made just over two years ago it was received by snowboarders in almost exactly the same way as Star Wars fans reacted to the news that Disney had bought their beloved franchise. For many it marked another low plumbed in the steady and inevitable decline of a once magnificent cultural touchstone. Others heralded it as the most pant-moistening news of all time.

For most, though, mild apathy was the most popular response. For snowboarders the promise that there would be another freestyle showdown at the Olympics was tempered by the fact that it would undoubtedly drive progression in the direction of ever more flips and spins.

“what can we expect from this newest addition to the stable of Olympic snowboard events?”

So what can we expect from this newest addition to the stable of Olympic snowboard events? I travelled to Pyeongchang in 2017 for a couple of the test events and a tour of the venues, and have been commentating or watching nearly every major snowboard event for the last couple of years, so I have arguably as good a crystal ball as anyone for what the Big Air finals might look like on the 23rd and 24th of February.

Unlike X Games Oslo, which uses a downtown location, the Big Air in Pyeongchang will be built opposite the ski jump. Photo: Anthony Huus

Let’s start with the venue – it’s being held in the ski jumping arena. This is good news because it’s using the same tried-and-tested physics we’ve seen at both The Arctic Challenge quarterpipe contest in Oslo, and Air + Style in Innsbruck when it was held at the Bergisel stadium. The landing of ski jump hills are so long and steep that they offer the kind of eye-watering run-in speeds that only the Norwegian hellman Mads Jonsson is comfortable with.

Combine this with an average temperature of -2˚C in February and an annual snowfall of just three inches, and you are essentially looking at an outdoor snowdome. This means that Schneestern – the company responsible for building the Big Air and slopestyle courses – have very few variables to work with and the chance to create a masterpiece; the snow equivalent of Michaelangelo’s David. The only question is how big they choose to make it (the kicker, not the penis).

“Schneestern have the chance to create a masterpiece”

When slopestyle debuted at the last Olympics there was an expectation to build a course worthy of the greatest sporting spectacle on earth. And there is a sentiment amongst a lot of commentators, which was reinforced by results at this year’s X Games, that the winning trick in 2018 will be a quad cork. There were two quad corks thrown in Aspen, and they took Gold and Silver in Big Air.

But this is where jump size comes in; if you are sniffing around quad corks then you need a minimum of 2.8 seconds hangtime. To make it comfortable you need a full three seconds, and yet at last year’s test event the kicker would only give you enough time for a quad if you were prepared to send it to the very bottom of the landing.

So will they increase the kicker size? I would say almost certainly because they want the quad, but if they do it will ignite a debate over whether the mega huck of a quad cork (in some cases a half cab quadruple backflip) can beat the uber technical tricks like switch backside 1620’s.

“For my money it’s Marcus Kleveland all the way: he has ridiculous aerial awareness can flat spin and cork equally well”

If you talk to the British coach Hamish McKnight, a man whose job it is to watch comp runs, study the judges decisions and then help build what he believes are Olympic medal winning runs for his athletes, he’ll tell you that because it’ll be the best two jumps of three that decide the winner, a switch back 16 should trump a quad, if it’s married with another big tech trick like a frontside triple 14.

I’d love to believe this, but for me the precedent has already been set by Iouri Podlatchikov’s pipe run in Sochi 2014, where a relatively pedestrian run by iPod’s own high standards was finished one trick early with the (dreadfully named) YOLO flip, a world first in competition. With the benefit of hindsight, Ayumu Hirano’s silver medal run was an infinitely better all-round run. Using the rationale that one big trick can eclipse an entire run, you can see how easy it will be for a quad and the backside triple 14 (now a stock trick for all medal contenders) to outdo the front triple 14 and a switch back 16 combo.

In the midst of a spectacle that is built around mainstream TV audiences, the prospect of a world first is too intoxicating, and it not winning would be too controversial. If you buy into my theory then we’re only looking at four big players who have the quad; Chris Corning (the first American to land one), Max Parrot (the big Air speciallist), Billy Morgan (the first man to land the quad) and then the Norwegian freak Marcus Kleveland.

For my money it’s Marcus all the way: he has ridiculous aerial awareness can flat spin and cork equally well, he is small and light on his feet so can fit big tricks into smaller spaces, and – critically – when he has the airtime he can make triples and 14s look good. And finally his favourite meal is a microwaved Snickers sandwich, so with a diet like that he’s probably only going to get one shot at a medal.

Jamie Anderson – surely a favourite for Big Air gold – at the 2016 World Championships of Snowboarding. Photo: Sami Touriniemi

“women’s riding has progressed at an incredible speed… I find it more enjoyable to watch than the men’s”

If they do go for a bigger kicker then it is great news for the women. Ten years ago, Janna Meyen, Cheryl Maas, Jenny Jones and Spencer O’Brien started hitting the big jumps on slopestyle courses. Before that there had been a women’s jump line next to the men’s, and there was an unspoken rule amongst the women that they wouldn’t hit the big kickers.

In the decade since, women’s riding has progressed at an incredible speed – and being honest, I find it more enjoyable to watch than the men’s. You only need to go back to Torah Bright‘s frontside 360 in Sochi – arguably the most stylish trick done by anyone who rode that course – to see that, in the absence of brain-melting spins, the women can add so much style and finesse to their runs.

In the last four years we’ve seen doubles go from being rare gems to basic elements of women’s runs. Jamie Anderson, probably the best rider without one, turned up in New Zealand in September and unveiled a cab double underflip to take the win at the first event of the season. Seeing as they’ve now become standard in slopestyle, it is a given that they will be the benchmark trick for aspiring Big Air medallists.

The only medal hopefuls without doubles are Spencer and Cheryl who both have big switch backside spins, 720 and 900 respectively. The double club has grown exponentially though, as the pros have realised that if they want to continue riding competitively past Korea it will be a necessity.

“Zoi Sadowski-Synnott has double backflips like most people have mute grabs”

Jamie Anderson learned them at the US Team’s Utah airbag facility, Klaudia Medlova has had them since she stomped the double rodeo at Nine Queens in 2015, Anna Gasser took victory at the US Open slopestyle this year with a routine that included her on-lock cab double underflip, and Hailey Langland stomped a frontside dub 10 to win last year’s X Games.

I don’t think you can look past the consistency, repertoire and experience of Jamie Anderson, and the smart money would be on double golds for the American, but I saw the young Kiwi Zoi Sadowski-Synott ride at the FIS World Championships in Spain last year and she had a fearlessness that I have rarely seen in women’s snowboarding. If she can stay in once piece and the kicker is huge then she would be my pick as an outsider, because she has double backflips like most people have mute grabs.

There is no doubt in my mind that all the ingredients are there. The best riders in the world will all be there on neutral ground, battling it out for the most lucrative prize in snowboarding, if not action sports (cereal box deals and reality TV invites for life anyone?).

The only downside is that low turnouts of uneducated spectators mean that very often the live atmosphere will be on a par with Luton Airport on a Tuesday morning, but if you’re watching on TV then who cares?

There is every chance that this could be snowboarding’s Rogue One. Even Kim Jong-Un would tune in.

Big Air begins on Monday 19th February with the women’s qualifiers – keep it on Onboard for the full report

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