Editor’s note: During this Winter Olympic year and leading up to the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championship season, this weekly series will tell Colorado’s rich ski racing history and heritage through stories about its ski heroes and legends.
Going strictly by the numbers, if you’re an Olympic hopeful growing up snow riding somewhere in America, you have a better shot at gold as a halfpipe skier like Maddie Bowman or a snowboarder like Jamie Anderson than as an alpine skier like Lindsey Vonn or Mikaela Shiffrin.
Winter Games purists may not want to hear it, but the numbers don’t lie. Twenty years ago, when most pipe and park riders hadn’t even been born yet, the only two freestyle skiing sports were moguls and aerials at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Snowboarding wasn’t introduced until the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Since then, five snowboard and three freestyle skiing disciplines have been added during the course of the past five Winter Olympics, and Americans have cleaned up on the medals compared to the traditional alpine skiing events that have been part of the Games since 1936 in Garmisch.
Americans have won 21 of 102 possible medals in freestyle skiing in the six-Olympic span since 1994 (20 percent), 24 of 90 medals in snowboarding (26 percent), and 22 of 180 medals in alpine skiing (12 percent).
Six of the nine American gold medals at the Sochi Olympics came in halfpipe or slopestyle skiing or snowboarding, two came in alpine skiing and the only other gold was won by Meryl Davis and Charlie White in ice dancing.
“The proof in the results. If not for freeskiers and snowboarders, Sochi would have been the ugliest Winter Olympics ever for the U.S.,” said Jason Blevins, who covers freeskiing and snowboarding for The Denver Post. “Biggest crowds, best ratings, strongest performances.”
Take away the six gold medals won by park and pipe athletes and the U.S. would have ranked 12th at Sochi behind Poland, which would have been the country’s worst performance ever at the Winter Olympics, Blevins adds.
And the alpine skiers actually tied their second best performance ever, with five total medals (two gold). The 2010 Vancouver was the high-water mark with eight American alpine medals (two gold).
The past 20 years is by far the best alpine-skiing stretch ever for Americans. For many decades, the Yanks played catchup to the traditional European powers in alpine skiing, claiming only 22 of 246 possible medals for a winning clip of just under 9 percent in the 13 Winter Olympics prior to 1994.
It took the U.S. 28 years to win its first ever men’s medals (Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga in 1964) and 48 years to claim its first ever men’s gold medals (Bill Johnson and Phil Mahre in 1984). But despite all the new-school skiing and snowboarding success, Mahre, for one, isn’t impressed.
“New events, mostly Gen X and judged — subjective at best — have taken some luster away from the Olympics,” Mahre said leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games. “It starts to get watered down. Marketing maybe?”
Taylor Gold, a snowboarder from Steamboat Springs who narrowly missed the halfpipe final at the Sochi Games, obviously loves the current Olympic trend.
Appealing to the Kids
“It’s really cool that they included some of the newer sports because it brings a younger interest to the Olympics,” Gold said. “I think a lot of people are focused on the figure skating and hockey and all the sports that have been there so long and that doesn’t really cater to the interests of the younger generation — people who like watching X Games.”
Two more snowboarding disciplines — slopestyle and parallel slalom — and two more freeskiing disciplines — halfpipe and slopestyle — were added for the Sochi Games.
Blevins says the new-school sports that the United States Ski and Snowboard Association has pushed so hard to include in the Winter Olympics program will only grow in influence at future Games.
“USSA is going deep on its snowboard and freeski programs,” Blevins said. “Next time, we’ll have team (ski and snowboard) cross events and big air. If it wasn’t for those slope and pipe athletes — who earned six gold medals — the U.S. flop would have been the biggest story of the (Sochi) Games.”
Colorado athletes eligible for Hall of Fame induction will likely lead that charge. Of the three to come home with medals from Sochi — Shiffrin (gold in alpine slalom), Gus Kenworthy (silver in slopestyle skiing) and Alex Deibold (bronze in snowboard cross) — two are new-schoolers whose sports are recent additions.
And Vail and Beaver Creek — host of both alpine skiing World Cup races and the Burton US Open Snowboarding Championships — will have front row seats for all the action in both the old and the new schools.
David O. Williams wrote this story for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum. The museum is located on the third level of the Vail Village parking structure adjacent to Vail Village Covered Bridge. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 970-476-1876 or go to www.skimuseum.net.