Snowboard punks earn grudging respect after wins

In Nagano, this is when it all started to go wrong.

Before the parallel giant slalom began, the Olympics' inaugural snowboarders were lovable in their naiveté, refreshing in their frankness. After it, when Ross Rebagliati won a gold, lost it for testing positive for marijuana, then regained it on appeal, the Winter Games' newest athletes went from poster boys to pariahs.

It has taken four years to quell the tales of their perceived petulance - from refusing to wear team uniforms to talk of boycotting the Games after Rebagliati's gold was revoked. Even last week, one reporter all but accused United States team member Danny Kass of being a pothead and an undeserving Olympian.

Today, however, the medal round of the giant slalom merely caps a week that erased the stigma of snowboarding's most inglorious hour, and replaced it with one of these Games' most memorable moments.

"Now we're ready for primetime," says Tricia Byrnes of the US snowboarding team.

A gold medal by Kelly Clark, and a sweep of the medals by Ross Powers, Kass, and J.J. Thomas will not win snowboarding instant acceptance into the circle of traditional sports. Brent Musburger will not soon be heard offering his opinions of backside method airs and 720 mute grabs.

But this week is a watershed event. It offered a glimpse of a different future - a future when some kids will snowboard because they want to go to the Olympics, rather than simply going to the Olympics because they are snowboarders. The first leads to Olympians who value what the Olympics mean. The second invites the disrespect and disaster of Nagano.

Already, there have been signs that that is happening. The scene at the bottom of the halfpipe when Clark won the gold on her final run was a genuine Olympic moment, as was the medal ceremony, when she was presented with the first gold in what could be a record-setting year for America. Even Kass - the long-haired, sleepy-eyed target for much of the media's criticism of snowboarding - strolled patiently through the media line after Monday's men's halfpipe event, answering every question.

"Just coming to the Olympics meant a lot more to me than some of the top finishes [in other events] that I've had," he says.

Correct answer.

The culture clashes may not evaporate, but snowboarding is growing up - while others realize that not all riders are punks and counterculture misfits. Gold medalist Powers, for instance, started a foundation to give disadvantaged kids in Vermont a chance to snowboard. Then again, snowboarders like Kelly Clark aren't likely to forsake the punk-rock of Blink 182, which she listened to on headphones while waiting for her halfpipe run, for traditional decorum anytime soon.

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