Next year, snowboarding will have been a winter Olympics sport for twenty years. Once seen as an outsider to skiing and more of a rebellious past time than a true sport, nowadays you'd be hard-pressed to argue that it's no longer part of the establishment. Still, it has changed dramatically since it first appeared in 1998, and with PyeongChang 2018 fast approaching here's a handy guide to snowboarding at the Olympic Games.
February in South Korea will see five different snowboarding events across racing and freestyle disciplines, with Big Air making its first appearance and Parallel Slalom bowing out after its debut in Sochi (though Parallel Giant Slalom will still continue). The 2018 Paralympic Games will feature snowboarding for the second time, with events taking place across Boardercross and Banked Slalom.
The first freestyle snowboarding event to feature at the Olympics, halfpipe is pretty much what it sounds like. Similar to vert skateboarding, it takes place in a giant and perfectly shaped ditch with vertical walls - these days the Olympic standard size of 22' (6.7m) walls is termed a superpipe. It is typically 180m (600') in length and wall-to-wall measures in at 20m (65'), all seemingly carved from sheet ice.
- Olympics Appearances: 6
- 2014 Men's Champion: Iouri Podladtchikov (SUI)
- 2014 Women's Champion: Kaitlyn Farrington (USA)
Snowboarders aim to get 'air' out of the walls of the pipe by taking speed into the pipe and then using precise angles and skill to convert that speed into amplitude above the top, or 'lip', then landing back on the same wall. You can expect the very best riders to launch about 20' (6m) above the top of the halfpipe, putting them well over 14m above the ground!
They also perform spins and flips whilst airborne whilst judges give them points based on the difficulty of the manoeuvre, the amplitude it is performed at and how well-executed it is, commonly referred to as style. Riders gain extra style points for grabbing their board's edge in specific places - ones deemed ‘harder’ will score higher - whilst rotating and for landing cleanly high up the pipe wall without putting their hands on the snow. Expect riders to perform five or six tricks in a run, with the best run out of two counting as their final score.
Snowboard halfpipe will be one of the highlights of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics - taking place under floodlights at night it tends to draw a large crowd, and the enclosed nature of the pipe compared to the other, more spread out events gives it a unique 'gauntlet' feel.
"Snowboard halfpipe will be one of the highlights of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics - taking place under floodlights at night it tends to draw a large crowd"
Shaun White has two gold medals under his belt already, and although he was beaten to the podium in 2014, his performances at a select few events over the past couple of years mean he still can't be discounted as a contender in the men's. Defending champion Iouri (iPod) Podladtchikov will most likely be looking to retain his crown, but expect fierce competition from the likes of Australia's Scotty James as well as Chase Josey and Ben Ferguson from the States, who have all been making waves in recent contests. Although not much is heard from them between Olympic cycles, the Chinese team are worth a flutter too, with Yiwei Zhang currently still the only rider ever to land a triple cork (three inverted spins in one air) in the halfpipe.
In the women's, all the money has to be on Chloe Kim, who at 14 was too young to compete in the last games. She has been dominant in competition since, with her main rivals coming from teammate and three-time Olympic medallist Kelly Clark. Spaniard Queralt Castellet and American Arielle Gold are also strong contenders for medals at Pyeongchang 2018.
Fun fact: Only Swiss and American riders have claimed the men's gold in halfpipe.
The 2014 Olympics in Sochi saw slopestyle on the roster for the first time. Though halfpipe has been a snowboarding staple almost since its inception in the eighties, over recent years slopestyle has become the more celebrated discipline amongst hardcore fans.
- Olympics Appearances: 2
- 2014 Men's Champion: Sage Kotsenburg (USA)
- 2014 Women's Champion: Jamie Anderson (USA)
As its name suggests, slopestyle takes place over a much bigger area than halfpipe - features are placed in sequence down a slope with riders scoring points for different manoeuvres on each, with a total score taking into account trick difficulty, flow through the course and style given at the end. The best score from two runs counts.
The features can be split into two categories: jumps and jibs. Jibs are usually non-snow obstacles that riders can slide across or tap (bonk) with their boards or hands, with extra points awarded for technical spins and/or flips onto and off each obstacle. Often these resemble features found in urban snowboarding, where riding takes place on handrails or walls, and are most commonly found comprising three stages out of six at the top of the course. There will be a choice of obstacles at each stage, so an important part of a riders' preparation is choosing a unique route through the course. Though more attention is often given to the jump features, the jib (or rail) section of a run is scored equally.
"The last jump is usually called the 'money booter' because this is where the biggest and most technical tricks are performed"
Jumps, also known as kickers, can usually be found at the bottom of a run and traditionally get progressively bigger as the rider progresses downhill. For example, the kickers at the 2014 Sochi Olympics measured 85' (26m), 90' (27m) and 95' (29m) in sequence, with the last one usually called the 'money booter' because this is where the biggest and most technical tricks are performed. Through most of snowboarding's history, jumps have been built with straight take-offs, but recently twisted kickers (called Wu-Tangs) and quarterpipe takeoffs have been in vogue, and the slopestyle course at PyeongChang will feature different take-off options on at least two jump features.
Jamie Nicholls shows off a prototype slopestyle course in PyeongChang
In terms of tricks, expect to hear a lot of talk about double, triple and even quad corks. A 'cork' in snowboarding is a horizontal spin where the rider dips off-axis so that at least one foot goes higher that their head. Double corks have been standard in contests for over a decade now, with triple corks now the minimum standard for entry in the male contest circuit. In the last couple of years Billy Morgan, Max Parrot, Marcus Kleveland, Yuki Kadono and Chris Corning have all landed 'quads', though never in a slopestyle contest. Might that change in PyeongChang 2018 with an Olympic gold up for grabs?
Compared to halfpipe, the slopestyle podiums are wide open as far as who could win them. Reigning women's champ Jamie Anderson (USA) has continued to dominate since Sochi, but Anna Gasser (AUT), Katie Ormerod (GBR) and Hailey Langland (USA) all have double corks in their trick bags and will be vying for the top spot. Don't count out the experienced riders either - Enni Rukajarvi (FIN) claimed silver last time around and still has a strong chance of making the podium again.
For the men's it seems unlikely that outside winner Sage Kotsenburg (USA) will return to defend, and with usual favourite Mark McMorris (CAN) currently out after a disastrous crash in the backcountry last spring it's still not sure if he'll be fit in time to qualify, leaving the field open. Sochi's silver place Ståle Sandbech (NOR) is sure to be a fan favourite, whilst the likes of Jamie Nicholls (GBR), Sebastien Toutant (CAN), Max Parrot (CAN), Yuki Kadono (JAP), Billy Morgan (GBR), Sven Thorgren (SWE), Red Gerard (USA) and Marcus Kleveland (NOR) are all strong contenders.
Fun fact: Sage Kotsenburg's final trick in his 2014 gold medal run - a backside 1620 Japan grab - had never even been attempted before, even by Sage!
Snowboarding Big Air is exactly what it sounds like: one huge jump. For the first time at the Olympics, riders at PyeongChang 2018 will compete to see who can do the biggest tricks on a single kicker, with the best two scored runs out of three combined to give a points total - highest score wins. There's no data available on just how big the Korean kicker will be, but big air jumps are usually noticeably bigger than their slopestyle counterparts. They're often held in stadiums and constructed from scaffolding to give spectators a much better view.
Whilst the discipline is new for these games, Big Air has a long history in snowboarding, with single jump contests going back as far as anyone can remember. Until it was announced as an Olympic event, the two biggest contests have traditionally been the Air + Style series and the X Games, but for the last few seasons riders have competed on the FIS (Federation International de Ski) circuit to gain qualification, thus giving rise to a female Big Air series for the first time.
"Given that slopestyle was one of the most watched events at Sochi 2014, it's more than likely that with its simpler format Big Air will reign supreme at PyeongChang 2018"
The event is unusual in that qualification will be given athletes for both slopestyle and Big Air, so riders with a specialism in one will have the chance to compete in both. Canadian riders have dominated X Games Big Air contests over the last few years, with Max Parrot winning every one since 2014 with the exception of 2015, which went to Mark McMorris. Sven Thorgren (SWE) and Marcus Kleveland (NOR) have won the last two Air + Style tours, though Yuki Kadono (JAP) and Parrot have won individual stops. Like in slopestyle, it's more than likely that quad cork variations will take centre stage at PyeongChang 2018 - just look at the highlights from 2017's X Games Big Air for a taste.
Hailey Langland (USA) won the new women's X Games Big Air earlier this year with a cab double cork, the first landed in competition, whilst the first ever Air + Style women's trophy went to Enni Rukajärvi (FIN). However, the two names most mentioned whilst talking about women's Big Air are Anna Gasser (AUT) and Katie Ormerod (GBR), who both have double cork variations that might be necessary to claim the win.
Given that slopestyle was one of the most watched events at Sochi 2014, it's more than likely that with its simpler format Big Air will reign supreme at PyeongChang 2018, though purists will point out not much is being done to separate the event from the likes of ski aerials these days.
Fun fact: The 2017 X Games Men's Big Air podium athletes spun a combined total of twenty inverts and 8280 degrees of rotation between them
The United States are by far the most decorated freestyle snowboarders in Olympic history with a whopping eighteen medals (including eight golds) from twelve events to date, far outstripping the nearest competition, Norway, with four medals.
Shaun White is the only rider to have won two gold medals - halfpipe at Turin 2006 and Vancouver 2010 - and his fellow American Kelly Clark has the most snowboarding medals overall - a halfpipe gold from Salt Lake City 2002 and bronzes from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. She is also the most veteran rider of all time having competed at four different games since 2002, but Torah Bright (AUS) ties her for number of events entered as she completed the gargantuan task of qualifying for and competing in halfpipe, slopestyle and boardercross at Sochi 2014, even claiming the silver in the halfpipe.
Only riders from four countries (USA, Switzerland, Germany and Australia) have taken home freestyle snowboarding golds, but with strong contenders from Norway, Canada, Austria, Finland, Sweden and the UK heading to PyeongChang the odds are that the top spots will look a bit more international come February 2018.