Games go 'extreme' with halfpipe and aerials
One goal: attract viewers with edgy tastes
SALT LAKE CITY — The Winter Olympics are changing.
Where once only square-jawed Norsemen careened down icy slopes, now gangly Danny Kass will drop into a snowboard halfpipe, with a grin on his face and Minor Threat playing on his minidisc player.
Where once ski jumpers were lauded for the stillness of their flight, Eric Bergoust will contort his body into as many unnatural positions as possible before smacking the snow in freestyle aerials.
Where once skaters glided only with a rhythmic grace, short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno will churn his legs in an event that looks like roller derby on ice.
This is the new face of the Winter Olympics. For decades, the Games were based only on ancient Nordic traditions, sports that formed the foundation of the first Winter Olympics and lent them a dignity - and a distance. Now, as the Games seek a higher and broader profile, they are embracing a new Evel Knievel ethic to woo youths weaned on Sega and WWF Smackdown, as well as the sponsors desperate to reach this most desirable demographic.
"It's the suburbanization of the Winter Games," says Jeffrey Segrave, an Olympic historian at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "It's a way for [them] to appeal to as many people as possible."
In some ways, that's only natural. After all, the Winter Olympics have grown far beyond their Scandinavian roots. For most people watching the Games, ski jumps and luge runs are as foreign as reindeer or umlauts. New sports introduced since 1992 - such as snowboarding, freestyle ski jumping, mogul skiing, and short-track speed skating - reflect today's mainstream global culture far more than bobsled or biathlon.
As a result, several nations that have normally played no significant part of the Winter Games now have medal hopefuls to root for. Australia won its first winter medal in 1994, when its short-track relay team took bronze, and Aussie freestyle aerialist Jacqui Cooper is a favorite this year. Fourteen of South Korea's 16 winter medals have been in short track, and nine of China's 14 winter medals have been in short track and moguls skiing.
Yet the introduction of these stunt-oriented sports - particularly snowboarding - has led to a clash of cultures that, some say, has even cheapened the Olympic ideal. They point to the Nagano Games in 1998, where snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana, and others objected to wearing team uniforms, saying they impinged on individual expression. They look at Kass, or mop-haired mogul sensation Jonny Moseley, and see someone who doesn't fit the enduring image of an Olympic athlete - a tight-muscled Adonis tempered by years of training and sacrifice.
Since 1998, though, much has changed. While snowboarding certainly left its mark on the Olympics, the Olympics have also changed snowboarding. Some top riders still refuse to play any part in the Games, but many others have reached a truce with the establishment they once railed against.
"The sport has grown up a lot and become more mainstream," says Jennifer Sherowski, who is covering the Olympics for Transworld Snowboarding magazine. "The riders have conceded that this is their job."
There's much money to be made. Kass has his own line of gear, and women's snowboarder Christy Barrett has a Nike shoe. Moseley designed his own video game. Between endorsements and events, these athletes can easily make more than $100,000 a year, and the increased exposure has brought - for some - increased professionalism.
"More of the athletes have figured out, 'If I want to be successful in this arena, this is what I have to do,' whether it's a set of tricks or a training regimen," says Tom Kelly, a spokesman for the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.
This year, the Olympics hope to tap into some of that success, countering a decade-long decline in television ratings among America's youth.
From 1992 to 2000, Olympic viewership dropped 55 percent for males age 18 to 24 and 41 percent for females. A recent Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll found the same trend at work today - and hinted at the role new stunt sports could play in Salt Lake.
"Older Americans are more likely to watch more of the Winter Games than are their younger counterparts," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence/TIPP in Oradell, N.J. At the same time, "older Americans are less enthused about the new sports being recognized as Olympic events. Younger Americans are more willing to embrace the recent additions."
In fact, many younger Americans are tuning in to events like this week's X Games - a four-day festival of snowboarding, snowmobiling, and trick skiing. There, Kass is a cult hero. Moseley is the Olympic champion who stayed true to his rebel roots, leaving the mogul circuit for two years after Nagano. In his words: "I just took off and partied."
For its part, NBC has already announced its plans to give far more coverage of snowboarding than CBS did in 1998, and that suits Jay Herron just fine. The Salt Lake fifth-grader tried to get tickets a year ago to the snowboarding events in nearby Park City, but they were sold out.
More than anything, that's what he wants to watch on television.
In fact, he barely remembers any other sports in the Olympics. His only criteria for what's worth watching: "I like the ones where they do the big jumps and stuff."