Why the Olympics Matter

Words: Christopher D. Thompson, Gavin Gibson

A member of the Black September commando group with a hood over his face on the balcony of the building in Munich where several Israeli athletes were held hostage during the 1972 Olympics in Munich..

As mountain people, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing freestyle skiing and snowboarding’s acceptance into the Olympic Mainstream. Slopestyle and halfpipe showcase the creativity and freedom of expression embraced by our culture more than racing or other forms of freestyle skiing ever have. More than jingoistic medal counts, our way of life is being catapulted into the mainstream’s ideologies. We’re leaving our own bubble.

NBC’s canned coverage of Olympic snowboarding has already shown that snowboarding has more to it than a rebel image and a death wish. This transformation in the public eye is a welcome change, but not what the Olympics are about.

Bigger than new tricks or team uniforms, the Games in Sochi will be the center of the global Geo-political landscape while the world’s youth gather together and peacefully demonstrate humanity’s physical boundaries being pushed to their limits in friendly competition. For two weeks, a global delegation of youth will have the world’s undivided attention instead of politicians.

For the first time, the likes of Nick Goepper and Henrik Harlaut will have more global ears and eyes than President Obama. That’s pretty easy to forget when we’re worried about the “spirit of our sport,” or whatever Bob Costas said. Instead, it’s important to remember that this isn’t just about skiers, or a NASCAR family’s interpretation of our character.

History shows us that the sports we love to watch are only part of the puzzle.

On September 5, 1972, at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, terrorists kidnapped and later killed 11 members of the Israeli team. The attack, triggered by a prisoner situation in Palestine, brought global attention to the terrorists’ ideals while shattering the perception of “pure sport” at the international event for all who witnessed the atrocity unfold. During the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Eric Robert Rudolph detonated a device in the Centennial Olympic Park, claiming three lives and injuring 111 in his protest against abortion. These events are clearly being taken seriously by governments sending their athletes to Sochi.

In preparation for the upcoming Winter Olympics, Russia has amassed some 100K armed personnel in and around Sochi, (www.outsideonline.com/news-from-the-field/US-Will-Send-Warships-to-Sochi.html) where the games will be held despite a handful of terrorist organizations asking their followers to disrupt the games at all costs. (www.cnn.com/2014/01/20/politics/sochi-security) The United States has already promised to send warships in order to protect it’s athletes. That’s right, warships. As for the President? Obama won’t be attending the games, a so-called political snub pointed at Putin. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2013/12/18/obama-gets-sochi-right) If terrorism isn’t enough, Russia’s repressed LGBT community will be planning a protest on the same day as the Olympic Opening Ceremony. In a nation where anti-gay violence is surging thanks to recent anti-gay laws and sentiment, unrest is already tainting the event. (www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/02/russian-sports-minister-anti-gay-olympics_n_3696611.html)

 At home, NBC broadcasts commercials of dolled-up Olympic athletes promoting a two week multimedia extravaganza complete with interviews, behind-the-scenes coaching, and pageantry that is eerily similar to the way the main characters of The Hunger Games are publicly showcased before being sent off to slaughter each other. (www.latimes.com/sports/sportsnow/la-sp-sn-white-preparing-for-a-shot-at-olympic-history-20140120,0,4498300.story) Shaun White’s Tweets are already making mainstream news. Millions of Americans are suddenly curious about triple-corks and rail slides. It’s a welcome distraction from reports of the next “black widow” terrorist. Our little contingent of “sport” is garnering a lot of attention.

Now, more than ever before, a sport that isn’t a sport, will be put in front of a global audience, effectively giving freestyle skiers and snowboarders the biggest audience in the world. In short, it’s a hell of a lot more responsibility than making sure your pro model jacket gets sold. It’s a moment to be all that you can be, as an athlete, countryman, and representative of our mountain culture. At the Olympics, even the smallest gestures have great impact.

For example, in 2010, Japanese snowboarder Kazuhiro Kokubo walked off a plane with his team uniform un-tucked, rocking dreadlocks and a nose ring. He was admonished severely by Japanese politicians and many of his public appearances were canceled. It was a small, potentially unintentional gesture, but it triggered action. In response to Kokubo’s public shunning, Japanese youth defended his freedom to express himself, and discussion of the issue spread through the  islands of Japan like wildfire. Debate is freedom. Skiing and snowboarding are freedom.

If halfpipe and slopestyle are to ever make a permanent dent in the mainstream, the athletes are going to have to do more than new tricks, they’re going to have to transcend sport. But, how does one go beyond their limits as athletes and into the public spotlight fighting modern stereotypes?

During the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Jesse Owens shocked the world, overcoming Hitler’s superior race and winning several gold medals. In the true spirit of the Games, one of Hitler’s own athletes, a man by the name of Carl Ludwing Long gave Owens advice on long jumping. Long was later defeated by Owens in the same event, and the two took a victory lap together under the roar of Germany’s approval. 1968′s Olympic Games in Mexico city saw U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, and John Carlos raise black gloved fists during their medal ceremony, and made a statement for civil rights. Australian Peter Norman, joined them on the podium in support by wearing a civil rights badge. Then at the 2000 Sydney Olympic games, the two Korean nations marched together for the first time, despite existing tensions between both nations. It was a statement that surpassed government.

Skiing and snowboarding don’t have borders. Outside of the competitions, they don’t have rules. Unlike racing, there is no way to cheat without behaving like Tonya Harding. Skiing’s biggest athletes already spend time together regardless of their nationality, thanks to a culture of couch surfing and snow chasing. You could say that skiers, snowboarders, and mountain people have always embodied the Olympic spirit. It is our freedom loving attitude that gives us a voice worth listening to, not the axis of our rotations.

This isn’t just another contest. Despite the gross over-commercialization of the event, it’s also the biggest gathering of talented and motivated youth from across the world on a very real, and very live global stage. It’s a chance for greatness on the grandest of stages.

Will our athletes play it safe, in order to become quiet poster children for gum companies and clothing lines while obediently raking in cash? Will they waste their moment in the sun giving praise to rap idols during interviews? Will skiing be the next “McKayla is Not Impressed” meme? (www.hlntv.com/article/2012/08/10/olympic-gymnast-mckayla-maroney-unimpressed-meme) Or will we put all of the bullshit aside and show the world why we’re worth our time in the spotlight?

When athletes talk about representing their country and their sports, they should remember that their own individual expressions, however subtle or subversive, represent more than themselves and their sports and sponsors. The Olympics signify more than the triple cork, whether we like it or not. - Bomb Snow

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