Posted: Sat February 14, 1998 at 1:58 AM ET
By Jim Kelley
NAGANO, Japan (CNN/SI) -- I am writing this column for me, not you.
I am letting my hair down, my slacks bag and my gear grate. I'm not going to wear a jacket or a tie (unless I want to). I'm not going to try to write a winning column, I'm just going to enjoy the write. I am going to get tubular, fly a McTwist and do a BK Flip while I cut the chute and I don't care who doesn't like it. Unless, of course, it's a judge.
I'm going to be me with attitude, but I also want respect and a sponsor and a whole lot more money. I want to talk about me, write about me, think about me. I want to go to your party, but I want it to be on my terms.
As you might surmise, I've been hanging around with snowboarders lately. It was extreme. I am rad.
OK, I'm back.
If you didn't understand all or even a third of the above, it's OK too. You're probably a non-rider, or what some people call normal. I like to include myself in that group, but it's fun to cross over to the other side now and then. Hanging with snowboarders at the Olympics is like going to International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch's sponsors-only ball with Bart Simpson or Drew Barrymore.
Seemingly harmless, but someone's not going to go home happy.
"I kind of resent that whole image,'' said Todd Richards, America's top snowboarder and one of the more sensible members of a group that on the whole is about as shallow as the Denver Nuggets' talent pool. "I see snowboarding as a sport, simple as that. It's a sport that requires skill and athletic ability and it certainly belongs in the Olympics. I believe the Olympics is going to legitimatize it.''
Maybe. Snowboarding is actually an extremely athletic, cutting edge sport that's fun to watch and probably more fun to do. On the mountain, it appears to be a pure sport. The two disciplines, giant slalom and the half pipe, require a great deal of athletic ability. It's off the courses where things get strange.
Snowboarders like to be different and they cultivate the image of radical youth.
They love to rail against authority and don't care who knows it, but that seems to be as far as they want to go. They'll talk about wanting to spare the environment, but don't seem to give a thought to the fact that someone bulldozed a substantial part of it to give them a place to ride.
They say they don't like the stilted formalities of other organized sports, and especially the stuffy, over-regulated world of the Olympics.
Fair enough, but at the same time most admit they longed to be here if only so that they and their sport get the recognition only the Olympics can bestow. They carp constantly about what amounts to a very unrestrictive Olympic dress code, but rarely mention the fact they signed an agreement to abide by it. They claim the creeping commercialization of their sport is crass, but several of them are said to be making high six-figure incomes. And those who don't are pressing hard for their sponsors to come up with more cash.
On the plus side, they seem to truly understand the dangers of second-hand smoke, but that's a column for another time.
The bulk of the riders who showed up for a Nike-sponsored press conference here did so to announce that they were getting new clothing or would push new products for the company that has a nice little ambush marketing scheme playing out of a car barn here. None mentioned the apparent conflict between being "free to be me" and "just doing it" for cash. Most seemed to not even recognize it.
Blame it on Generation X, MTV or television's overall dumbing down of our precious American youth. But if say, a book publishing company, perhaps Marvel Comics, put up nickels for every "duh," "huh" and "ya'know" uttered at the 35 minute session, most of these kids would be throwing bags of cash on the back of a Brinks van right next to the guys from the IOC.
Richards tries to get beyond that. He speaks of the beauty and inherent individuality of the sport. (There are no snowboarding teams and certainly no snowboarding country clubs). He even acknowledged that his particular specialty, the half pipe, is as much about tricks and stunts as it is about hard work and true athletic competition.
But even Richards couldn't or wouldn't get away from his roots. He credited television and ESPN's decision to make programming fodder out of what had been little more than downhill skateboarding. Once the all-sports cable network started pushing the so-called X-treme concept (like the men's downhill here wasn't dangerous enough) as real athletic competition, the boarders, with a few notable exceptions, were quick to climb on board.
"They were the first to take us seriously,'' Richards said of the network that thinks Bristol, Connecticut, is trendy. "We're a household name now because ESPN saw the future in it.''
Maybe where Richards' lives. But the network that still gives us monster truck racing, motocross on ice, pendulum darts, and dwarf bowling started life on the fringe and still isn't big enough to be a commercial player in something like the Olympics. ESPN went out on the edge with these athletes mostly to fill a couple of time slots that catered to Cubs fans and the rest of the lunatic fringe who weren't working anyway. These are the people who get their news from John Tesh and Mary Hart, think Montel really does care and that Jerry Springer interviews real people with real problems.
It makes sense they would equate a sense of legitimacy with the network that gave America Barry Melrose, Joe Theisman and lower case letters on something called The Duce. But for me the lasting thought I'll carry from snowboarders and these Olympics is a quote from giant slalom specialist Ross Rebagliati of Canada, who, after winning the gold medal here, said he realized his sport had arrived when "drug testing was introduced because of the Games."
Two days later he was caught in its web.
How smart is that, Dude.
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