Is snowboarding poised to overtake skiing among the American public?
The recent decline in skiing participation and in stars like Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller point to the potential for snowboarding to eclipse skiing's popularity among the next generation of Winter Olympic athletes and viewers. Vonn would have been the most recognizable name in Sochi until injury sidelined her to the broadcast booth, but she and the aging Miller could represent the last of the household skiing names. In the first event of his fifth Olympics, Miller, 36, failed to medal in a disappointing performance that placed him eighth in the men's downhill.
Meanwhile, American snowboarders dominated their opening events, sweeping the gold in slopestyle in its first year on the Olympic program. Four-time X Games champion Jamie Anderson was the favorite entering the women's competition and didn't disappoint in her victorious second run. Meanwhile, after the world's most famous snowboarder, Shaun White, dropped out of the competition to focus on his quest for a third gold in the halfpipe, teammate Sage Kotsenburg stunned the crowd at the Sochi Games by beating Norway's Staale Sandbech and Canada's Mark McMorris, the gold-medal favorite entering the tournament.
Kotsenburg's unlikely win came on a jump he had never attempted before: the 1620 Japan Air Mute Grab, in which the competitor spins four and a half times while grabbing his board and arching his back. Kotsenburg surprised even himself: "I can't believe I landed that," he told Bloomberg News.
While some, including Kotsenburg himself, characterized his victory as "random," it's a sign of just how far snowboarding has come and Team USA's depth in the sport. With the addition of slopestyle and the parallel slalom, this year's Olympics feature a total of 10 snowboarding events -- not bad for a sport that has struggled to be taken seriously and now enjoys mainstream success thanks in large part to White's legitimizing presence. At 27, White might be in the second half of his career, but the future is bright with 23-year-old Anderson and 20-year-old Kotsenburg.
On the other hand, with the presumedly imminent retirement of Miller, the future of U.S. skiing rests in the hands of 25-year-old Travis Ganong, who has yet to become a household name. He finished a career-best fifth in the downhill, and looks to build upon his strongest season yet to gain international fame. But traditional downhill skiing faces institutional challenges as participation steadily dropped to a five-year low in 2012. According to SnowSports Industries America, the number of people who identify themselves as alpine skiers is down, as those who identify themselves as free skiers is rising -- a change also registered with expanded freestyle skiing slopestyle and halfpipe events in Sochi. Snowboarding experienced a dip from its peak in 2010-11, but has still grown overall in the past five years and has narrowed its gap with skiing.
Without a star on Miller's level, it's difficult to see the revival of American alpine skiing in the near future. Bloomberg News reported today that a gold medal could mean $1 million in off-slope income for Miller, whose rebel personality has driven skiing's popularity for the last five Olympics. Now snowboarding looks to be in a position to graduate from a niche sport of bros to the must-see international event.
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)
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