Last weekend, on the resplendently powdered slopes of Vail, Colo., the World Snow-boarding Championships were held, and they were unlike anything seen in Salt Lake City. The crowds numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Goggled spectators mingled with goggled competitors in the laidback base lodge. In the absence of network TV coverage, contest schedules were constantly changed. Like many snow-boarding events, it was barely controlled mayhem.
Beneath the surface, however, a dramatic shift was taking place. Before the Winter Games, many of the world's leading snowboarders, including the U.S.'s Tara Dakides and Norway's Terje Haakonsen, had been defiantly indifferent and even hostile to the Olympics, what with the Games' overcommercialized corporate ethos. But last week in Vail, in the wake of the Ross Powers- Danny Kass-J.J. Thomas Olympic sweep in the men's half-pipe and Kelly Clark's gold in the women's halfpipe, even the old schoolers acknowledged that the stakes had changed. In short, snowboarding has gone mainstream, and its famously anti-establishment athletes were making noises about coming onboard for the ride.
Which isn't to say that snow-boarding's hard core has taken the Olympic oath just yet. Many top riders still chafe at the idea of being regulated by the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS), the sport's governing body. As the old schoolers see it, the FIS is responsible for the outdated judging system used in Salt Lake City, which rewarded such pedestrian tricks as straight airs, in which a rider grabs his or her board in the air but doesn't spin. The competitors in Vail pulled off tricks that were far more creative and eye-popping. There was, for example, Mike Michalchuk's signature double back flip with two spins, a move that would have been less appreciated in Salt Lake than it was at Vail, where it received high marks from the International Judges Commission, a progressive group that encourages pushing the limits.
Still, the sport's momentum coming out of the Games is undeniable. For that to continue, the FIS hardliners should embrace snowboarding's rebel roots. They should stop ignoring the sport's highest-profile stops, like the World Championships, the U.S. Open and the Winter X Games, and make them Olympic qualifying events for 2006. They can also replace the Games' lame parallel giant slalom event—sorry, but snowboarding has never been about racing—with the more popular slopestyle, the individual downhill event that mixes big-air jumps and slide rails.
"Snowboarding still has 15, 20 years before it plateaus, if we grow it right," says Jay Moore, head judge at the Worlds. "Right now, everybody in America thinks snowboarding's cool. The thing is, it could be so much cooler."