We Deserve Better

Mar 8 2018
Photo by
Sani Alibabic
Mar 8 2018

T he Olympics are supposed to be the pinnacle of sport, a place where the world’s best gather every four years to showcase their abilities. It’s a dream most athletes hold close and work tirelessly towards. Last month, during the women’s 2018 Olympic slopestyle final in PyeongChang, I saw another side of the Games. The conditions were dangerous and unfair. The surging winds made it the single worst event of my career. And yet the officials did not intervene, or even confer with the athletes. It robbed 26 women of the chance to showcase their sport to the world and put them at risk of injury. How did this happen and why?

For the past 14 years, I’ve competed in nearly every major slopestyle snowboard event across the planet. X Games, U.S. Open, Dew Tours, World Cups, Grand Prixs, and Vans Triple Crowns—you name it, I’ve done it. I’ve seen my sport grow and evolve so much in those 14 years, most notably the inclusion of my discipline into the Winter Olympics.

Attending my first Games in Sochi was a dream come true. As an athlete, getting to represent your country is a unique and very rewarding experience, but it doesn’t come without tradeoffs. For snowboarders that tradeoff has been allowing a different sport’s governing body to run ours. Since the inclusion of snowboarding into the Olympics in 1998, the Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) has had complete control of our qualification process for the Games. To me, attending FIS events has always been a necessary evil to get to the Games—I’ve honestly never taken much pride in my results at those events. I’ve always felt that snowboarding should be run by snowboarders, by an organization that gives its full attention and efforts to our sport. Most athletes don’t feel that FIS has ever done that for snowboarding, and during the Olympic slopestyle competition they proved again how little they care, and where we stack up in the hierarchy of their organization.

On February 11, for the second time in history, the men’s Olympic slopestyle final took place. Despite some gusty winds in the beginning, the men were able to pull off a solid three-run final. The women’s qualifiers were up next and we headed to the top of the course fully intent on riding our best. Throughout our hour-long practice, gusty winds made it difficult to complete the course. I managed to get through a handful of times, but saw so many of my competitors struggling to make the jumps. In my last practice run, I got hit by a huge gust of wind and came up about five-feet short on one of the jumps. I arrived back at the top to hear the news that qualifiers had been cancelled due to the high winds and that we would run a two-run final with the entire field the following day. I was upset about the format change, but felt the best decision had been made given the circumstances.

Angelika Warmuth/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Arriving to the hill the next day, I knew we were going to be up against it. The winds were swirling and gusting much greater than the day before and in all directions. We do a winter sport, so we’re used to riding in adverse conditions. Wind can be one of the most dangerous elements because it’s unpredictable and inconsistent and not only affects your speed into the jumps, but also your rotation once you’re in the air. Unbelievably, I heard through a game of telephone that practice was postponed. No riders’ meeting was held to communicate the change, just as there was no meeting the day prior to inform us of the postponement. We heard it through the grapevine of other riders as it trickled down from organizers to coaches to athletes. This happened again and again as our practice got postponed 90 minutes and then was at last allotted a start time.

In the nearly decade and a half that I’ve been a professional athlete, I’ve competed in just about every type of weather you can imagine. A lot of those times, regardless of the event, the riders haven’t been given any option to cancel or postpone. It’s a sad reality that across the board in competitive snowboarding, we do not have weather days. I have dropped in many times to courses that I knew were not safe—at times it was because I was hungry and wanted to succeed, at others it was because I was inexperienced and afraid to speak up. During all of these occasions, whether it was X Games, Dew Tour, or the US Open, the riders have always been consulted. If conditions are subpar a riders’ meeting is held, so we can work with the organizers to, at the very least, discuss our options. Sometimes those options are limited, but we are always consulted on our safety and often times we vote as a group on if we will compete or not. The athletes were not asked once over the two days of Olympic competition how we felt about competing in such conditions. We weren’t asked about scrapping qualifiers or having our final reduced to two runs. We didn’t have a say in our final practice time being cut down at the last minute, and not once were we asked about our safety on the course. Our fate was left up to a group of people who have never even rode the course in question. These are the people who deemed the conditions to be “within the boundaries to stage the competition safely.” However, what wasn’t within the boundaries of safety that day was the Alpine GS competition, which got postponed for the second day in a row due to high winds.

Sani Alibabic

Sitting in the start tent for an hour and a half, it was apparent that the majority of the field felt uncomfortable with the situation. A lot of girls talked about rumors that it would get moved to another day while others said they heard it wasn’t possible to postpone it again. Most spoke of their fears for riding in such heavy wind. All spoke of how our sport as a whole would be viewed by the world if the event were held in such conditions.

We started practice and to no one’s surprise it was worse than the day before. I finished practice and returned to the top for what I presumed would be a riders’ meeting with the organizers to discuss our options. I arrived to see the first athlete already dropping in. I was shocked and angry that the event was moving forward. It was the Olympic Games. I had waited four years for this opportunity, spent thousands of hours training and countless dollars travelling the world to qualify. This event was happening whether I, or anyone, felt it was safe or fair. If I wanted this chance that I had waited so long for, I would just have to swallow my pride and do what I could. I watched in horror as rider after rider got blown around by huge gusts of winds. Some women came up short, others overshot. People landed on their heads, caught their edges, and flew out of control over the jumps—myself included. In the entire Olympic final, only nine women landed a full run.Nine out of 52 runs. In a quality three-run final you will typically see a landed run from every athlete. Forty-three is an absurd number of incompletions. Shortly after the event, FIS released a statement which read, “We knew it was very difficult conditions for the riders, each rider had two opportunities to perform their run. Nobody is forced to go down and compete.” No we were not forced, but what was our alternative? To drop out of the Olympics?

FIS maintains that rider safety is their top priority, but they made no effort to get a consensus from those who’s safety was at stake. Consulting coaches does not count. The coaches weren’t riding the course and they weren’t competing. If safety is an issue an event director needs to speak directly to the athletes. It is our bodies on the line. We deserve an organization and event directors who will communicate with us and value our safety, not just make crude comments after the fact. It was careless and dangerous to run the event and at the very least, FIS could acknowledge that fact. Instead, they place blame on the athletes. It became our fault for not dropping out of the Olympic Games if we didn’t feel safe.

After slopestyle ended, there was a lot of chatter about the potential of a boycott of big air. There was a range of reactions for what we should do as a group.  Although a boycott of big air could have sent a powerful message, it wasn’t the one that needed to be sent. Big air was our chance at redemption and to showcase the level of our sport to the world. Every woman in the field took that chance and rode at a level never before seen in our sport. Instead of walking away, we strapped in and showed everyone how far we have come.

Clive Rose/Getty Images

As women in a male dominated sport we’re constantly asked, “Why aren’t you doing the same tricks as the men?” We’re plagued by inquiries of why women aren’t as good. We fight this battle daily, and I see each one of my competitors striving in their own way to close the gap. I am proud to have seen the sport progress from 360s and 540s to women doing double cork 1080s. It is the most exciting time in the history of women’s snowboarding, and we waited four years to show the world what we have accomplished, not only as individuals, but as a collective group. In slopestyle, that opportunity was taken away from us. Perhaps the silver lining to this event is that people woke up to how bad things have truly gotten with FIS at the helm. My hope is that this will be a catalyst for change in competitive snowboarding, and that we can begin to push harder for what our sport deserves.

Every event has its flaws, and the weather will always be a factor, but if we can learn anything from these Games, it’s that rider safety and communication must be paramount. At the end of the day, three exceptional women walked away with hard earned and well-deserved medals, but our sport as a whole took a very big hit.

The Olympics have come and gone now, the medals have been awarded, but what impact has this left on snowboarding? Are we better for having endured such a catastrophe of a slopestyle event in order to redeem ourselves and our sport in big air?

Women’s snowboarding had something taken from it in Pyeongchang, and now it’s about finding a way to get it back.