The normally chill athletes competing in the snowboard halfpipe competition are not stoked about the conditions of their mountain arena, and have called for officials to delay the event. That's definitely not going to happen, even after more than half the competitors fell today during qualifiers.
The men's snowboarding halfpipe final is taking place right now and the pipe is a dangerous mess, according to some of the sport's best and most respected riders. Athletes complained about the pipe's conditions since the first practice rides this weekend, and, if the qualifying runs ahead of tonight's final are any indication, the pipe won't magically come together at the last minute like in Vancouver, when a deep freeze made the pipe perfect at just the right time. Any efforts to repair the pipe have been thwarted by Sochi's warm temperatures, and restrictions set by the International Olympic Committee, which has only emphasized the wide gaps between the riders and the stuffy IOC officials who covet their appeal to younger viewers.
American slopestyle gold medalists Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson showed the world snowboarders are the chillest athletes you'll find at the Winter Olympics. No one is more laid back. No collection of athletes can go with the flow like the snowboarders, and yet, the best among them hate the Sochi halfpipe. "It's the Olympics. It should be flawless," American veteran Danny Davis told Yahoo Sports, adding the pipe is "garbage." “It’s hard to get in there and have all the tricks and have everything that you need and not be able to get to the wall,” two-time reigning champ Shaun White, universally recognized as the best rider in the world, told the Washington Post. On Sunday, the biggest problem was the pipe walls, from which the riders launch high into the air. The problem was fixed, mostly, but at the sacrifice of the pipe base, where sugary snow prevents a smooth approach to the next wall.
Some think conditions are so poor the event should have been postponed. "They should push [the event] back," former American gold medalist Hannah Teter said. Others hope a higher power will step in and help the riders stay safe. "It's the Olympics," American women's team rider Arielle Gold told Yahoo Sports. "Miracles can happen." But through the qualifying runs — which organizers almost scraped because of pipe conditions — over half of riders fell during their runs. The only American rider to miss the final, 20-year-old Taylor Gold, fell during his semi-final run and failed to qualify. His two runs in qualifying were nearly flawless.
Most riders take issue with the IOC's decision to contract pipe construction to Development Snowparks instead of the company widely considered the industry leader, Snow Park Technologies. Davis accused the IOC of being cheap and disrespectful for not providing the best platform for the world's best riders in what is unquestionably the sport's biggest competition. The X-Games, ESPN's annual action sports mecca, treats snowboarding as a marquee event and employs Snow Park Technologies.
Olympic pipe cutter John Melville, of Development Snowparks, explained to Yahoo Sports how the IOC restricted his ability to work on repairing the pipe ahead of the competition:
Melville said the halfpipe's dreadful conditions on Sunday night were caused by a television broadcaster-prompted delay. He said his team could not properly treat the pipe during a moguls competition because broadcasters did not want the noise of the halfpipe-cutting machines to interrupt live coverage. The team in charge of fixing the pipe stayed up until 9 a.m. local time Monday trying to fix it after a meeting with coaches grew heated, with multiple officials complaining about the pipe's problems.
Some took this slight as another sign the IOC doesn't care about snowboarding with the same passion the rider's care about the Olympics. Snowboarders love the Olympics because of the global visibility. But the Olympics loves snowboarding because of its appeal to younger viewers and sponsors. Snowboarding keeps the Olympics from looking too stuffy and old and dusty, while lining the IOC's pockets with new revenue streams from advertisers that otherwise would not consider the Olympics. Which means, as Yahoo's Jeff Passan explains, the snowboarders have most of the power and should consider boycotting the finals:
This is not symbiosis. It is parasitism. It is a powerful entity preying on one that, to this point, has shown unity only in theory and words. Since 1998, when the Olympics introduced snowboarding, riders have maintained an uneasy-at-best relationship with FIS. Norwegian Terje Haakonsen, then considered the best rider in the world and now the godfather of the sport, refused to participate in the Olympics for the very reasons that now threaten snowboarding's integrity. He was a prophet who understood that the IOC cares only about profit.
Rider sponsors should rally around any athlete who chooses to abandon the Games for safety concerns, too. While the Olympics are the sports biggest stage, which means there's money at risk if a boycott occurs, any long term injury to a rider because of a substandard half-pipe will mean money lost down the line to lost opportunities.
The boycott did not materialize, however, as the finals began as expected. But, if it had, a boycott would quickly become the lead story of the games. Then again, so would an injury to a major competitor, or a fall by a top contender that costs them a medal. (White already wiped out once.)