Snowboarding—the act of standing sideways on a board and sliding down a snow-covered slope—has gone from a marginal activity for a few diehard participants to an Olympic sport with mass appeal in three decades. More than 18.5 million individuals currently snowboard worldwide, and it is supported by a global and billion-dollar industry. However, as the following historical narrative reveals, despite rapid economic growth, institutionalization, and commercialization, snowboarding was founded on the ideals of fun, freedom, and individualism, and for many contemporary participants, it continues to be a valued form of physical play. Indeed, when asked why he keeps returning to the slopes, professional Norwegian snowboarder Terje Haakonsen replied, “It's just a joy, the joy of… playing in the mountains with your friends.”
Dating the birth of snowboarding is impossible. People have been standing on sleds and trying to slide on snow for hundreds of years. Snowboarding, as we understand the activity today, however, emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s in North America. In 1964, Sherman Poppen invented the Snurfer when he bolted two skis together and added a rope for stability. The Snurfer sold for between $10 and $15 in supermarkets and was seen as a children's toy, much like the Hula Hoop. During the 1970s, several Snurfer enthusiasts began experimenting with foam, fiberglass, steam-bent wood, and vertically laminated wood with the goal of making a board that was more maneuverable and faster than the Snurfer.
Most of the early pioneers of the activity embodied the idealism of the bygone counterculture and, in direct contrast to skiing (which was an expensive and bourgeois sport framed by a strong set of rules of conduct), embraced snowboarding as a free, fun, creative, and individualistic activity. Haakonsen best captured the countercultural ideology among early boarders when he described snowboarding as about making “fresh tracks and carving powder and being yourself” rather than “nationalism and politics and big money.”
Ski resorts initially banned snowboarders. Negative images of surfing and skateboarding from the 1970s contributed to the public dislike and distrust of snowboarding. According to David Schmidt, the national sales manager for Burton Snowboards, ski resort owners, managers, and their skiing clientele “visualize snow-boarders as a bunch of skate rats who are going to terrorize the mountain.” While bans made participation difficult, they did not stop determined and passionate devotees, who hiked up the slopes to test their latest equipment, develop their skills, and play in the snow with their friends.
Freestyle snowboarding is perceived as being a dangerous style of snowboarding, and while injury can and does occur, terrain parks and half-pipes are carefully constructed and maintained to minimize risk.
In 1983 Stratton Mountain in Vermont became the first major ski field to open its piste to snowboarders. Others quickly followed. Skiing had reached a growth plateau, and snowboarding offered ski-fields a new youth market and ongoing economic prosperity. But, even after gaining access to the ski-fields, snowboarders continued to see themselves as “different” than skiers, and tensions between skiers and snowboarders remained throughout the 1980s. Summarizing the cultural differences during this period, snowboarding historian Duncan Humphreys wrote that whereas “skiing embodied technical discipline and control,” snowboarding “embodied freedom, hedonism and irresponsibility.”
By the early 1990s snowboarding still remained a minority activity. However, participants formed a unified front and, as professional boarder Peter Line recalls, “every other boarder was your buddy.” While there were undoubtedly geographical variations in approach, commentators in the early years frequently referred to a pervasive community spirit based on a fun, nonjudgmental scene that valued personal style. Youth cultural anthropologist Olav Christensen, for example, described the early snowboarding culture as a “playing collective.”
Modern competitive snowboarding began in 1981 with the first American national titles held at Suicide Six in Vermont. The next year the resort hosted the first international snowboard race. Snowboard competitions during the mid to late 1980s embodied an inclusive ideology.
They tended to be poorly organized and, in keeping with co unter cultural traditions, privileged fun over serious competition and individualism. Snowboarding historian Susanna Howe describes these events as “cultural hotbeds” that effectively ironed out any notions of social stratification. Everyone, she adds, was “drunk and disorderly.”
Significant change occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The convergence of several factors contributed to the escalating number of board-sport participants. More ski resorts opened their pistes to snowboarders, the mainstream media started reporting favorably on snowboarding culture, and snowboarding magazines (e.g., Absolutely Radical) and films (e.g., Totally Board) communicated images, attitudes, and styles to snowboarding cultures around the world. Technological advances and an increasingly competitive market also provided participants with a cheaper and wider variety of equipment.
Economic growth and further institutionalization accompanied higher levels of participation in the mid-1990s. Yet, institutionalization angered many snow-boarders and some overtly resisted the process. For this group, competitive boarding stood in symbolic juxtaposition to “soul boarding.” For example, in 1990, world champion snowboarder Craig Kelly retired from the competitive circuit that he likened to “prostitution.” As he put it: “Snowboarding is something that I think should be done on your own terms. Society is full of rules, and I use the time I spend in the mountains as an opportunity to free myself of all constraints… I decided that competing on the World Tour restricted the freedom that I found with snowboarding in the first place.”
Debates over the institutionalization process in snowboarding came to the fore in the lead-up to the 1998 winter Olympics. The loudest voice of opposition came from Terje Haakonsen, who refused to enter the games because he believed that the International Olympic Committee comprised a group of Mafia-like officials and that the event was tantamount to joining the army. Haakonsen refused to be turned into a uniform-wearing, flag-bearing, walking logo. Flakezine magazine also predicted that, once included in the Olympics, snowboarding would become “exactly like golf or tennis… boring, dull, and staid. Sure, snowboarders, snowboard companies, and the snowboard media will make a lot more money (yippee), but it will be in exchange for their souls, creativity, and individuality.”
While many other snowboarders expressed similar sentiments, some embraced these changes. Debates among snowboarders over the institutionalization process, and the 1998 winter Olympics more specifically, are illustrative of the growing divisions and cultural fragmentation within snowboarding culture during this period.
Inevitably, incorporation continued regardless of boarders' contrasting viewpoints. By the late 1990s, television and corporate sponsors had identified the huge potential in extreme sports as a way to tap into the young male market, and mainstream companies began appropriating the alternative, playful, hedonistic, and youthful image of the snowboarder to sell products ranging from chewing gum to vehicles. During this period snowboarding increasingly became controlled and defined by transnational media corporations, like ESPN and NBC, via events such as the X-Games and Gravity Games. According to professional U.S. snowboarder Todd Richards, “The image had already begun to change but the X-Games put the icing on the mainstream cake. It was sort of sad to say goodbye to being a bunch of misunderstood outcasts. A lot of joy was derived from the punk-rock-spirit, and once the masses join your ranks… its over.” The incorporation of snowboarding into the × Games and Winter Olympics, video games including PlayStation's Cool Boarders and Shaun Palmer Pro-Snowboarder, and blockbuster movies such as First Descent (2005) helped further expose the mainstream to snowboarding.
As snowboarding became popularized and incorporated into the mainstream, it adopted many of the trappings of traditional modern sports: corporate sponsorships, large prize monies, rationalized systems of rules, hierarchical and individualistic star systems, win-at-all costs values, and the creation of heroes and heroines. Unlike earlier generations, many current boarders embrace commercial approaches. Professional U.S. snowboarders, including Shaun White, Danny Kass, Gretchen Bleiler, and Hannah Tetter, have benefited from the recently commercialized form of snowboarding. They have achieved superstar status within the culture, attracting American corporate sponsors including Target, PlayStation, Visa, Nike, Mountain Dew, and Campbell's Soup. Some earn seven-figure salaries.
With major corporate sponsors offering large prize monies, the focus of many boarding competitions is no longer fun; extreme forms of individualism and ego-centricity prevail. Observing these changes, snowboarding journalist Cody Dresser notes: “The existence of a professional snowboarder has degraded into a serious, high-pressure situation over the years. The transformation was subtle but somewhere, somehow, everything changed. Stress levels rose as the fun factor slowly crumbled. Snowboarding has been sterilized and neutered by the mainstream, the Olympics, the X-Games… homogenized by way of professionalism practiced in team sports like football or track and field—tainted by training and endless competition.”
Despite the increasing professionalism at the elite level, residual traces of snowboarding's countercul-tural and playful past remain. Professional and amateur snowboarders alike continue to embrace the somewhat idealistic philosophy that snowboarding is about fun, self-expression, spending time with friends, and getting back to nature, not about making money. A recent study conducted by Tyka Anna, Blecharz Jan, and Tyka Alek-sander, for example, revealed that the primary motivation of snowboarders training for the Olympic Games in Turin (Italy) was fun and pleasure (90 percent); secondary motives included specific snowboard atmosphere (27.5 percent), money benefits (22.5 percent), keeping fit (22.5 percent), and fashion (5 percent). The “joy of playing” continues to be a priority for many professional and amateur snowboarders alike.
Early snowboarders tended to be young, middle-upper-class, white, heterosexual males. The mainstream exposure of snowboarding in the 1990s, however, had a significant influence on cultural demographics. Snowboarding attracted an influx of participants from around the world, and from different social classes and age groups. The activity has seen a 385 percent increase in participation between 1988 and 2003, and during the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was one of America's fastest growing sports. The influx of new participants, however, fueled struggles within the snowboarding culture between insiders and newcomers and various subgroups. Andy Blumberg, editor of Transworld Snowboarding explains that “once united we seem today divided.”
Core participants include males and females whose commitment to the activity is such that it organizes their whole lives. Snowboard instructor, ski lift operator, and park crew are among the jobs held by passionate snowboarders committed to the lifestyle rather than the economic rewards. In contrast to core boarders, snowboarders who are less committed—including male and female novices, poseurs, or weekend warriors—have lower cultural status. They do not (or cannot) prioritize snowboarding over work and all else, but rather enjoy it as a leisure activity during holidays and weekends. Others do not engage in active participation, instead consciously choosing to display name-brand clothing and equipment. But members cannot buy their way into the core of the culture; respect has to be earned via commitment to the physical act of snowboarding.
Various identities and preferred styles of participation (e.g., free riding, free-styling, jibbing, and alpine), exist within this core group. Freeriders prefer to hike, ride a snowmobile, or pay for a helicopter ride to access remote backcountry terrain, where they might drop off of rocks or cliffs, ride down chutes, and snowboard in powder and among trees. Others, including freestyle boarders, prefer to ride the more accessible, yet typically crowded, ski resort slopes. Freestyle riding, which includes snowboarding on manmade features such as half-pipes and terrain parks, is currently the most popular form of participation. This style rests on creative and technical maneuvers (e.g., spins, grabs, inverts), many of which have their roots in skateboarding. In response to this trend, the typical ski resort invests in equipment and personnel to create and maintain artificially constructed playgrounds, such as terrain parks and half-pipes, to attract snowboarding patrons.
Some core snowboarders also enjoy “jibbing”—a sub-style of freestyle snowboarding that involves performing various skateboarding-inspired maneuvers on obstacles including trees, stumps, and rails. Jibbing in urban environments has also become a popular activity among core boarders; jibbers locate a handrail (e.g., down a flight of stairs outside a school, hospital, mall, etc.), shovel snow at the top and bottom of the rail (to create a run-in and landing), and then perform technical maneuvers while jumping onto, sliding down, and jumping off the rail. Alpine, another style of participation, privileges speed and carving over jumping or jibbing, but it is the least popular style among core snowboarders who tend to dismiss participants as skiers on boards. Simply put, styles of participation and competition are constantly evolving, boarders are continually creating new and more technical maneuvers, and snowboarding companies and ski resorts are going to great lengths to cater to the diverse demands of participants. A recent example is the production of snow-skates (skateboards for the snow) and the creation of specially built snow-skate parks at many major ski resorts.
Different styles of snowboarding participation carry different sets of risks. Freestyle snowboarding is often portrayed as the most aggressive and perilous style of snowboarding. While serious injury can and does occur in these artificially constructed playgrounds, risk tends to be perceived rather than real. Terrain parks and half-pipes are carefully constructed and maintained by trained professionals, and are positioned within the boundaries of the ski resorts, with rules and regulations signposted and policed by resort employees. Medical facilities are often only minutes away. Jibbing in urban environments carries a new set of risks, including arrest by police and the physical consequences of falling on concrete steps or metal railings.
But freeriding, or big mountain snowboarding, is undoubtedly the most risky style of participation. As snowboarding historian Susanna Howe explains, big mountain riding is “downright dangerous: avalanches, shifts, helicopter crashes, crevasses, rocks, and exposure to the elements take their toll on those who aren't prepared or aren't lucky.” Because of the different social and geographical environments in which various snowboarding styles are performed, some techniques tend to be more facilitative of play (e.g., freestyle snowboarding), while others are more conducive of transcendental or “flow” experiences (e.g., big mountain riding).
In sum, despite rapid economic growth and the institutionalization and popularization of snowboarding, elements of play remain at the heart of the activity. As professional snowboarder Romain De Marchi proclaims, “even though more random people are becoming snowboarders… all the real snowboarders still have the passion and know the soul of snowboarding. You know—fun, friends, and boards.”
The following comments from a Scandinavian snowboarder in an early study conducted by Olav Christensen, Ph.D., further illustrate the emphasis participants place on physical play and joy: “The snow is spraying as you glide and the sun is shining, and everybody turns to see how big a cloud of snow you leave behind. Some people like to ride in wide sweeps, while others find a wind-lip that they can slash up. It's about being creative and seeing the possibilities instead of the limits. No matter how commercial snowboarding becomes, that will never disappear.” Indeed, whether it is on an artificial slope in Hong Kong, a half-pipe in California, a terrain-park in New Zealand, a powder field in Scandinavia, or the top of an Alaskan peak, the act of snowboarding is a form of physical play currently being enjoyed by millions the world over.
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