As if his gravity-defying maneuvers out of the halfpipe weren't
statement enough, world junior champion snowboarder Heikki Sorsa
of Finland arrived at the Park City Mountain Resort for practice
on Thursday morning with his hair gelled into a stiff mohawk.
"Olympic rules are not so cool," said Sorsa, who turns 20 today.
"I find a way to be different."
To a group of athletes who pride themselves on individual style,
be it a new trick or an aerodynamic coif, the Olympics are about
as liberating as parochial school. There are the Crayola-colored
team uniforms--just a shade better than the tapered jeans and
sensible burgundy pumps that made U.S. halfpipe rider Shannon
Dunn feel like "1980s bad-style girl" in Nagano. There is the
squeaky-clean song list (including hits by Donny Osmond and
Yanni) from which the riders must choose music for their runs.
Then there is the sense among athletes that judges reward height
of maneuvers over the smooth turns championed by boarders.
Enforced by the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS), which
the IOC appointed to oversee Olympic snowboarding, these
regulations have turned off some of the sport's best. Norway's
Terje Haakonsen and the U.S.'s Tara Dakides are among the top
boarders who have boycotted FIS's Olympic qualification circuit
in favor of more relaxed, high-profile events managed by the
International Snowboarding Federation (ISF). "Snowboarders don't
need the Olympics," says boardmaker Jake Burton, one of the many
sponsors keeping snowboarders in cargo pants and SUVs. "The
sport was doing fine before the Olympics came along." To the
athletes, the Games' out-of-touch approach is all the more
frustrating because it was the IOC itself, in an effort to liven
up the fossilized winter lineup with youth-oriented offerings,
that campaigned for the sport's inclusion at the 1998 Olympics.
As if scripted, snowboarders came off like bored kids in the
backseat of the Nagano Games. Given to Marlboro breaks between
practice runs and irreverent quotes during interviews, few were
Wheaties-box material even before Canada's Ross Rebagliati was
disqualified for testing positive for marijuana after winning
the giant slalom. (His medal was returned after a panel of
arbitrators concluded that pot was not a prohibited substance at
the time. It is now.) "We had no clue what to expect in Japan,"
says U.S. rider Ross Powers. "Knowing what the deal is, we can
enjoy the Olympics for what they are."
Cruising along in the sunshine that blanketed Park City's
magnificent Superpipe during practice, riders even admitted to
being stoked for the Games. "There are weird hoops to jump
through, but then you get the whole world watching you do
something you love," said U.S. rider Tricia Byrnes. "Don't let
anyone fool you. We all worked extremely hard to get here."
Just ask 19-year-old U.S. halfpiper Danny Kass, who a couple of
months ago said that the prospect of "beer and babes" was
driving him on his Salt Lake quest. "Sometimes," said Kass,
shifting uncomfortably in the requisite robin's-egg-blue vest
worn by the U.S. team at a Thursday press conference, "people
think you're more laid back than what you are."
Don't expect a mellow vibe when halfpipe competition gets under
way with the women's event today. As even snowboarders will
agree, few fashion statements compare to a gold medal around
your neck. --Kelley King
COLOR PHOTO: STEFAN MATZKE Sorsa shows Salt Lake a soaring boarding style.