U.S. freeskier Nick Goepper airing out some more of his “Jackass” tricks on a slopestyle course before the Sochi Games; photo courtesy of USSA/FIS
When slopestyle skiing and snowboarding were added to the Olympic docket back in 2011, they were added under the premise that the disciplines would infuse excitement and a fresh perspective into the iconic but aging tradition of the Winter Olympic Games. While the sports, in which skiers and snowboarders combine airs and tricks on courses featuring rails and a variety of jumps, will certainly do that and then some, there are certain questions about their coverage on the world media stage—questions that could very well affect a successful debut for slopestyle in Sochi 2014.
The first of those questions is whether or not anyone outside of slopestyle’s niche following actually understands the sport. Bob Costas, the premier English-speaking anchor of the Games for the past two decades and in many ways the voice of the Olympics, brought this point to the forefront earlier this week during an appearance on the Today Show. When show host Matt Lauer asked about the new events Costas went on to say, “Basically this stuff is just ‘Jackass’ [the T.V. show] stuff; stuff they invented and called Olympic sports.”
As someone who has dedicated a better portion of his young life to that “Jackass stuff,” I was a bit thrown off by what Mr. Costas had to say, and frankly, a bit hurt. But does Costas’ statement merely echo those of millions of others? He is, after all, one of the most respect sportscasters of my lifetime. Do people understand what goes into pulling off four off-axis rotations 30 feet up in the air? Do they understand the balance required to slide a kinked metal handrail at high speed? It’s worrisome to think that most of the people watching this year’s Olympics may not, believing slopestyle is just a cheeky gimmick to attract more viewers rather than a legitimate display of athleticism. And it doesn’t help that our mainstream media might not be ready to inform them otherwise.
Another potential problem stems back to slopestyle’s roots. Slopestyle skiing and snowboarding have long had a rebellious air to them, pushing the limits at every corner and breaking the rules of convention. These are the things that made them the popular events that they are today, but also things that don’t quite fit in with the squeaky-clean ideal of the Olympics. Luckily athletes like snowboarding’s Shaun White and freeskiing’s David Wise, a halfpipe champion, father, and volunteer youth pastor, have helped improve slopestyle’s image in recent years, but incidents like snowboarder Scotty Lago’s medal kiss picture (the one that got him kicked out of the Olympics early in Vancouver) leave a lot of media and viewers convinced that freeskiing and snowboarding, and thus slopestyle freeskiing and snowboarding, are sideshows not worthy of primetime Olympic attention.
Slopestyle’s best shot at earning legitimacy in the media is through knowledgeable commentators, and for sports in their Olympic infancy, that means experienced athletes comfortable in front of a camera. Luke Van Valin is slated to handle NBC’s commentating duties for the slopestyle skiing events—good news for the guys and gals who will be flying off jumps and sliding rails this February. Van Valin is a former competitor who has parlayed his athletic career into commentating, becoming “The Voice of Freeskiing.”
Van Valin has commentated on major competitions for years, but this is his largest stage yet, and it comes at a crucial time. If Van Valin can use his expertise to break down the action for the average viewer, slopestyle has a chance to be a big hit at this year’s Sochi Games. If not, mainstream media could potentially discredit the discipline beyond repair.
It’s scary to think that this all rests in the hands of one guy, but if it has to be one, it might as well be Van Valin. Now, if only we could sit him down with Mr. Costas.