[A dejected-looking Spencer O'Brien walks away from the bottom of the course after being caught by a gust of wind and stacking on her first run. Photo: Tristan Kennedy]
Over in the grandstand the music was pumping, flags were waving and a Korean announcer was cheerfully trying to induce a dance-off. But at the bottom of the course, Cheryl Maas was not happy. “That was," she said bluntly, “a shitshow."
The Dutch snowboarder, one of the most experienced riding in today’s Olympic slopestyle final, has never been one to mince her words. But even by her own outspoken standards, the verdict was a damning one. “I'm not happy about the contest being run. It's not just me, everybody was on their arses."
“There should be 1080s and double underflips and stuff," said Cheryl, “[But] if you look at what their runs were, it was like barely grabbing their boards."
She wasn’t wrong. Less than one fifth of the women’s slopestyle runs the world witnessed this morning were landed. Despite the talent-packed field, there wasn’t a single competitor who landed both of their runs, and only 9 of the 25 women who rode in the two-run final managed to put a single run together. Even they had a torrid time of it. “There should be 1080s and double underflips and stuff," said Cheryl, “[But] if you look at what their runs were, it was like barely grabbing their boards."
The problem was the wind. Strong, gusting headwinds over the Bokwang Phoenix Park had led to yesterday’s qualifier being cancelled. But when this morning dawned, bright and breezy, things weren’t looking much better.
“I think for wind this is the worst [contest] I've ever ridden in," said Canadian rider Spencer O’Brien. “In snowboarding we have to ride in adverse conditions a lot, we don't have weather days." But a contest “where this much of the field can't land?" Spencer shook her head. Like Cheryl, she’s one of the more experienced snowboarders on the circuit. But she’d never seen anything like it.
Understandably, both riders were annoyed that they’d been blown off course in an Olympic final, and fallen twice. But the issue was bigger than one of just individual performance. As Spencer put it: “I think the biggest shame is watching the girls ride for the past season and a half, and I know the show we could've put on. I'm just so bummed that we didn't get to do that for the world."
The sheer size and scale of the audience for the Games means that what happens in an Olympic final matters for snowboarding. It’s arguably the most effective showcase the sport has for spreading the word about just how rad it is to the rest of the population. If what happens in the contest is less than the best it could be, it sort of feels like we’ve short-changed ourselves.
Spencer was far from the only rider to think this way. Silje Norendal was one of the few who managed to put down a run, finishing just outside the medals in fourth. But it was far from her best. “What I put down today, that was meant to be my qualifying run. I wasn't sure that would be enough to make it into the top 12.
“It's just really sad, because all the girls have been working so hard, and women's snowboarding has been really climbing lately, the progression has been crazy. This course is really nice, I really like it, so we really could have showcased women's snowboarding in a really good way. But what we were able to show today was obviously not good at all."
Anna Gasser, the young Austrian who like Silje had been tipped for the gold by a lot of people, shared similar sentiments. “I always have fun snowboarding normally, but today was not one of those days. It really was sketchy and a little scary, because every run was different and it was kind of a lottery."
One of a new generation who’s really pushed women’s freestyle riding in the last couple of seasons with her multiple double cork variations, Gasser’s skill was obvious on the rails at the top of the course. Her cab 270 to frontside boardslide earned the highest individual trick score of the day. But like Spencer, Cheryl and most of the rest of the field, she came unstuck when one of the ever present gusts of wind caught her over the kickers.
"I know the show we could've put on. I'm just so bummed that we didn't get to do that for the world."
It wasn’t as if the treacherous nature of the conditions had come as a complete surprise either. Both Silje and Spencer had made a point of telling the Technical Director that they thought the contest should be postponed again. Which begs the question, if so many of the women were struggling and said so, why was the contest run at all?
On this point, the riders were less sure. Interestingly, none of them pointed the finger at the traditional bogeymen of Olympic snowboarding, the FIS. “I know the guys who run FIS," said Spencer, “and I didn't really see them around too much. I'm not sure where that final call comes from."
Meanwhile both Anna Gasser and Silje Norendal made a point of singling out FIS’ Contest Director for Park & Pipe, Robbie Moresi, for particular praise. “I think Robbie does an amazing job," said Silje. “He’s always on our side and he said earlier this week ‘if it's scary I'm not going to make you go’. So I'm not sure what really happened today.
Both suspected that Moresi’s hands might have been tied by people further up the chain of command. “It's a lot of money you know, I think it's TV time." said Norendal. “We have a final slot and I think there's a lot of money and a lot of things that, if it doesn't happen on schedule, could be a problem."
Undoubtedly the wind had dropped for a brief period before the practise, but confusion still reigned. "We just thought they're gonna keep doing [postponing it] for a while and then we'll all go home," said Silje. "But they kind of said that if they start practise they're most likely going to run it and everyone just went into comp mode." Once the ball was rolling it seemed none of the riders felt able to stop it.
Spencer wondered afterwards whether thy could have pushed back more than they did, “but everyone worked so hard to get here, it's hard to ask riders to do that. To be like ‘OK, like let's boycott, let's not do this.’ I think for a lot of people they work so hard they just want to put their heads down and go to work."
Silje meanwhile pointed out that when she, Hailey Langland and Anna Gasser had done exactly that at the X Games recently, the organisers just went ahead and ran the comp without them. The idea that the riders were not in control of their own decision-making process however is a disturbing one.
One rider who was apparently happy for the competition to go ahead (one of about three, according to Spencer) was Jamie Anderson, who managed to put down the most technical, landed run of the day and claim the gold.
“Funny that the one that wanted it the most won the contest at the end," said Anna Gasser. “But that's how it goes." But although Jamie’s long experience of competitions definitely helped her work around the conditions, she readily admitted that it had been taxing. She was forced to improvise an impressive save on the last 180 of her final trick, a front 7 that she normally has on lock.
“My dream run if everything was good," she said “was gonna be switch back 5 off the ledge, back rodeo 5, cab 9, front 10." As it was, she was forced to fall back on slightly sketchier versions of the tricks that won her the gold four years ago in Sochi.
Jamie took it all in her stride, saying: “I feel like there's always some type of weather, or new snow, or slow speeds, or flat light. I feel like that's something we all just have to learn how to deal with." But she admitted that it had been frustrating. “Honestly? No, I don't think it showcased the best level of riding," she said.
"As one rider after another fell, the kids visibly began to lose interest."
Unlike the crowds over the weekend, who were mostly paying ticket holders, the crowd at the Bokwang Phoenix Park today featured a lot of Korean kids who’d been given the day off school to watch. Bussed in in their hundreds, they “oohed" and “aahed" appreciatively as the first few women came flying over the final knuckle.
But as one rider after another fell, the kids visibly began to lose interest, and started to wander off down the hill. At what should have been the culmination of an nail-biting final, showcasing the best tricks from the best riders in the world, the crowd had thinned to less than a third of its original size.
“My biggest sadness," said Cheryl, “is for the sport. Women's snowboarding has progressed so much and today... you can't even call it snowboarding if you ask me."