Women’s snowboarding is better than this. It’s a progressive, exciting time in the sport with riders pushing the boundaries of what’s possible more than ever before.
Not that anyone would know that from watching the Olympic slopestyle final on Monday.
Run at Phoenix Snow Park in some of the worst weather conditions the riders could remember, the contest featured far more crashes than landed runs as the women battled strong gusts of wind from changing directions.
Used to riding in adverse weather, the riders made the best of it. But afterward, they made clear the event should not have been run in those conditions.
“I don’t know why we weren’t asked and I don’t know why it was ran, to be honest,” said Canadian Spencer O’Brien. “Because no one wanted to go.”
Largely they agreed, it was not safe. And beyond that, it did a disservice to a sport that has progressed dramatically since it made its debut in Sochi.
“That’s the biggest shame is that watching the ladies ride the past season and a half and to know the show we could have put on, I’m just so bummed we didn’t get to do that for the world,” O’Brien said.
In what would become a battle of attrition, American Jamie Anderson claimed her second consecutive gold medal, while Canada’s Laurie Blouin took silver and Finland’s Enni Rukajarvi got bronze.
All are talented riders who fought through the weather to land runs, but they conceded it was a factor. The dream run Anderson had hoped for was quickly forgotten.
Most riders attempted runs and tricks far below the typical level of contest riding. It’s all that was safe to do in the constantly shifting wind.
“I’m not extremely proud of my run – back 5, cab 5, front 7 is pretty mellow,” Anderson said. “That would barely get into finals in some events, but considering the conditions and everything, I feel pretty good.”
Pushed by the addition of big air – a one-jump competition that is making its Olympic debut in a week – the trick level has progressed massively in the past two seasons.
Anderson won gold in Sochi with two 720s in her run, but riders are pushing past that now. It’s standard to have a 900, and the top riders are landing 1080s and double corks – inverted tricks with flips and spins that are moving them much closer to where the men are.
“The progression has been crazy and this course is really nice. I really like it. The jumps are a bit smaller,” said Norwegian Silje Norendal, who finished fourth. “So we really could have showcased women's snowboarding in a really good way and what we were able to show today was obviously not good at all.”
Instead, the riders had to essentially hit the lottery to land a good run. Get a break in the wind, and you could put one down. Get a gust of it, and there goes your chance at an Olympic medal.
“The conditions changed a ton from first to second run,” said Anderson. “Lots of speed issues, lots of getting caught in the gust. It was super unfortunate.”
The final was already affected by the weather, with winds causing organizers to postpone the qualifying round that was scheduled for Sunday.
Instead, all athletes advanced to a two-run final on Monday in more challenging conditions. After 25 riders had gone through their first runs, only five had landed them. Dealing with winds, a handful bailed on a jump. The rest crashed on their runs, in some cases taking hard body slams as they dropped out of the air.
“I think everyone’s just really happy that no one got seriously hurt and we’re all on our two feet,” said American Hailey Langland, who finished sixth.
That’s really the saving grace for the International Ski Federation, which makes the determination on running the competition and started it here Monday after a 75-minute delay.
In a statement issued later Monday, FIS said it monitored weather conditions throughout the day and its jury “considered it within the boundaries to stage the competition safely.”
It said it monitored wind conditions during a 30-minute delay and 45-minute training session before proceeding.
“FIS always aims for the athletes to be able to stage their best performances, which some athletes have expressed was not the case today, but the nature of outdoor sports also requires adapting to the elements,” the federation said.
Those words are likely to ring hollow to a group of riders who attempted to launch themselves off of massive jumps into gusts of wind while FIS canceled its Alpine event for a second consecutive day.
Since FIS was named the federation for the sport, snowboarders have held the concern that FIS values its skiing events, in particular Alpine, above others. The federation’s decisions on the two events on Monday will do little to disabuse them of that belief.
“They kind of told us if we don't go today there was no other day so every girl felt the pressure to go,” said Austrian Anna Gasser, a medal favorite coming in who fell on both her runs in gusts of wind.
“It's a little funny that they can move the downhill five days and they pressure us into riding in these conditions.”
FIS did not answer a question from USA TODAY Sports about why it postponed the Alpine event but held the slopestyle competition.
By the time it explained the decision, it might not have mattered to riders who spent four years preparing for an Olympic final – an event that’s supposed to be the pinnacle of sport – to see snowboarding get a stage that didn’t put it in its best light.
"That makes me feel (expletive) because we girls tried to progress," Gasser said. "We've been progressing, a big difference to Sochi and other contests. … It would have been cool to show that we girls are not that far apart, to show some style. I think today made us look way worse than we are.”
Sure, the riding wasn’t as impressive as it could have been or the showcase they would have hoped to have for their sport.
But if anyone comes out looking worse for the way this contest went, it’s certainly not the riders.