A Cold Serving of Humble Pie

No Olympic medals for cocky American snowboarders

There is an avalanche of nonsense roaring down the hills of the Japanese alps and right into your family rooms telling you that the American snowboarders are refreshing, funny, and free spirits in a stodgy Olympic world.

But in this case, the media are giving you a very bum steer.

Snowboarders present themselves as, and pride themselves in, being a generally undisciplined, unruly lot given to me, me, me and with scant understanding of we, we, we. "A team [concept] is a little unusual for us,'' admits Todd Richards, of Breckenridge, Colo.

People have interpreted their inappropriate behavior as cute. No, it's boorish.

Veteran rider Mike Jacoby of Hood River, Ore., shrugs that snowboarders simply represent a "new breed of person.''

This new breed of person, US style, swaggered into the Olympics, popping off about how good they were.

But up here Sunday for the men's giant slalom competition - on a day that started bright with brilliant blue skies and eventually saw the racing suspended briefly because of fog and snow - America's riders got a dose of what they desperately needed: Humility. They lost. Badly. Very badly. The best finish was by Chris Klug of Aspen, Colo. He was tied for second after the first of two runs down Shiga Kogen, but in the second and final run butchered the bottom section and was fortunate to end up sixth. "Oh, well,'' he explained. The winner was Canada's Ross Rebagliati, just a hair faster than Italy's Thomas Prugger.

These American are nonconformists who have enough earrings, pony tails, sloppy clothes, and attitude to open a Museum of the Absurd.

Some of the snowboarders are unhappy having to wear clothes supplied by the US Olympic team. It infringes, they say, on their individual freedom.

The riders are offended by wearing the red, white, and blue? They don't want to cooperate with the American people - remember, the US Olympic effort is funded not by the government, as it is in most countries, but by individual and corporate contributions - who pay for their around-the-world travel and training and equipment and room and board? It defies all logic and reason that some of the snowboarders sensibilities are offended by being told to wear various parts of the 63-piece outfit to events that cost us $3,900 per athlete. Wholesale.

Perhaps they should snowboard off into the horizon and leave the Olympic ideals and Olympic dreams to more appreciative others.

The deeper problem is there are plenty of other young people in the country who think this sort of errant behavior is way cool. And older people, who know better, are afraid to criticize for fear of being branded old fogies who live in the past and who are still unhappy that skis no longer are made of wood.

Snowboarding (both feet on one board, similar to surfing) should never have been made an Olympic event. It's not worthy. It was a half-baked decision to cater to the Generation Xers. The sport's brief background is checkered, to be charitable. Mostly, it battles with skiing interests for use of the trails. Ironically, snowboards are banned on this mountain when the Olympics aren't taking precedence. Snowboarding started as an activity peopled by rebels with no causes - and that aura hangs over today's competitors.

To be fair, the men riders showed stunning progress as human beings in the wake of their Sunday debacle. Adam Hostetter of Tahoe City, Calif., was disqualified after missing, or maybe not missing, a gate. Amazingly, he took the decision with equanimity and sportsmanship. He said he wasn't sure if he missed the gate but his coach said he did and that was good enough for him: "It's a game of centimeters.'' Then he went on to praise everything and everybody. It was all done with appealing sincerity.

THEN, lo and behold, along comes Klug who could be excused for being a bit sour that he blew a medal that was just waiting to be hung around his neck. He appeared with a smile on his face, whimpering nary a whit about the poor visibility. Jacoby, once the sport's reigning king, finished 17th and he was a superior gentleman about it.

Even more splendid was that all suddenly were talking about the many wonders of the Olympics. "It's really an honor to be representing my country,'' gushed Klug.

What happened is America's bad-boy riders are catching the Olympic spirit. They couldn't help it. Nobody told them to behave. They just did. Because they felt it. There is still plenty of trouble ahead dealing with snowboarders who believe both the sun and the moon orbit around them. But the way that Klug, Jacoby, and Hostetter conducted themselves post-race shows change is possible - sometimes even in one day. Next thing you know, they'll be selected poster boys for the International Olympic Committee.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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