The boys in the camo fatigues took a look at Matt Kass, then had
a little talk amongst themselves. Would you mind stepping over
here, one of them finally said. We're going to run a quick
background check on you.
That's what happens when you show up at one of the metal
detectors at the Olympics wearing a jacket with a large grenade
stenciled on the back. This all went down last Saturday morning
at the security checkpoint outside the snowboarding venue in Park
City. Matt explained that he and his younger brother Danny, a
member of the U.S. halfpipe team, own a company called Grenade
Gloves, which sells snowboard gloves. The soldiers nodded
politely and proceeded with the background check.
In addition to his brilliance in the pipe, the 19-year-old Kass
(right) is the bad boy of American snowboarding. When he and his
posse aren't raising hell at competitions, spray-painting the
Grenade logo on walls, snowboards, even the jackets of
spectators, they escort Grenade's "business manager"--a
life-sized, inflatable and anatomically correct bloke decked out
in a Grenade cape. However, Kass and his Grenadiers have toned
down their act considerably in Utah. They know that the
approximately 15,000 security personnel at the Games, many of
them packing M-16s, are unlikely to find it amusing.
Matt's run-in at the checkpoint symbolizes a larger cultural
clash: snowboarding versus the Olympics, a pairing about as
natural as Marilyn Manson and Margaret Thatcher. Desperately
seeking relevance to youthful audiences, the IOC introduced
snowboarding as a medal sport at Nagano in '98. It put the sport,
however, under the governance of the Swiss-based Federation
Internationale de Ski. Just as skiers and snowboarders don't
always get along on the slopes--"Watch where you're going, punk!"
"Up yours, old man!"--the relationship has not exactly clicked.
"The people at FIS making decisions about snowboarding aren't
snowboarders," says Greg Johnson. "It's crippling."
The 43-year-old Johnson has some credibility on the subject. He
was the head judge at the halfpipe in Nagano and, unlike many of
his brethren, is widely respected by snowboarders for his
knowledge of the sport. Deeply frustrated over what he describes
as the FIS's inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to grow and
evolve with its adopted sport, he quit and founded the
International Judges Commission, a breakaway body of more
progressive snowboarding judges. (While IJC judges have been
blackballed from FIS-sanctioned events, most other major
competitions, such as the Sims World Snowboarding Championships
and the U.S. Open, use them exclusively.) Johnson's biggest beef
is that while no sport has changed more over the last decade
than snowboarding, the judging criteria for the halfpipe are
eight years old. "That's an eternity in snowboard time," he says.
A brief primer: Riders squeeze seven to nine tricks per
zigzagging run down the pipe. They're judged on amplitude
(board-speak for height above the lip), straight airs (when a
rider gets big air, then grabs his or her board but doesn't
spin), rotation (for when they do spin) and overall
presentation. Since Nagano, elite riders have pushed the
technical envelope, coming up with jaw-dropping rotations such
as Danny Kass's inverted Cab 1080 (three 360-degree rotations).
"That's the direction the sport is going in," says Johnson.
Not in the Olympics. Just as they've done for eight years, FIS
judges emphasize amplitude and straight-air tricks that aren't as
interesting or as difficult, forcing the most talented riders to
dumb down their routines. Little wonder that some of the best in
the world, such as Terje Haakonsen of Norway and Kevin Jones and
Tara Dakides of the U.S., have zero interest in the Olympics.
Before the Games Kass told The New York Times, "FIS judging is
terrible," though he did soften his criticism in Park City,
mellowed, no doubt, by the silver medal he won on Monday.
Johnson was diplomatic. "It'll be a good show," he said on the
eve of the Games, "but it could be so much more. It could be the
ultimate showcase for snowboarding, and it's not. I get
So did many boarders upon first glimpsing their venue in Park
City. The pipe was superb, the temporary 10,000 seat amphitheater
the grandest they'd ever competed in. Draped over the outside of
the amphitheater, however, was a gorgeous, four-story banner...of a skier.
The next SI ADVENTURE will appear in the March 18 issue.
COLOR PHOTO: PETAR KUJUNDZIC/REUTERS
Snowboarding versus the Olympics: It's a pairing as natural as
Marilyn Manson and Margaret Thatcher.