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The Art of the Slopes

"I wanted a victory lap that would be remembered. I achieved that.”

The words of half-pipe snowboarder Shaun White endure as a brilliant summary of his achievement at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Not only did he make history in Vancouver, but he did so with pure showmanship.

Having already secured the gold medal, his second at the quadrennial tournament, with a score of 46.8, White attempted his signature move to bow out in style – the Double McTwist 1260. One brief chat with his coach and White was decided.

Tumbling through the air with three and a half twists and two head-over-heel flips, he had the Vancouver crowd in his palm. White landed it perfectly, so perfectly it elevated his score to an Olympic best of 48.4.

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For all of sport’s magical moments, there are few instances where the pure entertainment of it all is woven so closely to the narrative.

That night in British Columbia propelled White to new levels of fame, particularly for a winter sports athlete. Yet the sport that made him an Olympic champion and a multi-millionaire star is remarkably young and has spent less than 20 years in the winter games.

The success of White and the beautifully niche half-pipe snowboarding is perhaps the finest example of the direction in which the sports of the slopes is set.

Half-pipe snowboarding joined the Olympic roster in 1998, with freestyle skiing sports such as mogul, slopestyle and cross added in years since. Disciplines once defined by their military and hunting backgrounds have been liberated in a flurry of varied and artful forms.

It’s a growing air of eccentricity and finesse that is apparent in every detail. For the 2010 games, the snow trousers worn for the half-pipe competition were designed to mimic ripped jeans and White sported a bandana with the design of the same flag he’d later stand under.

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Yet, for all the pain-staking practice and abundance of tricks, the history of snowboards is brilliantly simple –all started by a Michigan engineer tying two skis together. The same can be said for skis and their grounding in transportation, for which they’ve given use for millennia.

Even as winter competitions began to grow in the early 20th century, the face of slope sports remained closely coupled to its origins. The inaugural Winter Olympics even saw a ‘Military Patrol’ competition in the skiing calendar.

Only thanks to a handful of pioneers did the freestyle skiing and snowboarding we see today, make the breakthrough. There are few better examples than Stein Eriksen whose love for Alpine skiing led him to aerial skiing.

With equipment no different to before, Eriksen could prickle audiences with gravity-defying twists and flips. Decades on, and his experiment is now an Olympic sport and a discipline gaining popularity and pervading inspiration with each jaw it drops.

The allure of thrilling moments, punctuated by their technicality, can be thanked for its continual rise. Next year’s winter games will see ‘Big Air’ join the slope calendar with a British hope – Katie Ormerod – vying to set the example with a medal in Pyeongchang.

If she earned a place on the podium, she would be following in the steps of Jenny Jones who captured a bronze medal in Sochi. The sport? Slopestyle snowboarding and yes, it was making its debut.

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Moreover, the pursuit of finesse and art on the slopes is no more apparent than in the remarkable and eccentric ‘ski ballet.’ Now a relic of 1980’s and 1990’s demonstration events, athletes would compete in an unusual meeting of dance and skiing.

Pole flips, tip flexes and 720s would be put in front of the judges, with each and every aspect – from pure strength to the delicacy of posture – scrutinised. Competitors would literally breeze through tricks that could dislocate their knee to the riff of the Rolling Stones.

Only in winter sports, it seems, could there be such a brilliantly bizarre marriage of athleticism and art.

The sight of skiers and snowboarders performing stunning tricks for flair, not convenience, seems to carry a special type of allure. It’s credit to winter sports’ nature that the artful disciplines forming are so deeply related to other, creative practices.

The very nature of slopestyle courses can be traced to urban environments and skateboarding, with their steps and rails. The aforementioned White even started his sporting endeavors in skateboarding and was inspired by Tony Hawke.

American medal hope Ashley Caldwell was even attempting Olympic success in gymnastics, before transferring her tumbles from the floor routine to the slopes. Even from an internal perspective, athletes like Team LifeProof's Lisa Zimmermann can move across freestyle disciplines with ease – from Big Air to slopestyle.

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Furthermore, there is a certain romanticism to the lengths some athletes will go to for their moment on the mountainside. In the true spirit of the immortalised Jamaican bobsleigh team of 1988; Luke Steyn represented Zimbabwe in the slalom event at Sochi 2014.

Learning his trade from family holidays, Steyn lined up alongside athletes from the likes of Togo and Morocco that fell in love with winter sports in their own, remarkable ways. The growing presence of indoor facilities in nations rarely touched by snow is testament to such inspiring case studies.

Even beyond the realms of competition, rules and regulations, anybody with a pair of skis and sufficient snow can take to free skiing. Slaloming through any route and any destination desired with an air of free-running and dance.

Moreover, the ever-accommodating influence of technology allows these moments of adventure and finesse to enter the world of social media, accumulating thousands of views with the awe they inspire.

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From the growing range of sports within it, to the varied nature of its practice and the diverse group of athletes that master it, winter sport holds a spell over many with its art and showmanship.

The 2018 Winter Olympics will bring these snow-bound disciplines back to the forefront and moments like White’s will be played over and over again. The games are simply a glimpse but that’s ample demonstration of these sports’ personality and flair.

An upside down figure was chosen as the Olympic symbol for freestyle skiing when it was introduced; all too fitting for the winter sports turning perceptions on their head.

All views outlined within are that of GiveMeSport and supported by LifeProof. These are not associated directly with or by the Winter Olympics committee or that of associated brands or sponsors of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics 2018.

Topics:
Athletics
Commonwealth Games

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