PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — If you’re addicted to sports misery, you can’t just look at the United States’ modest Winter Olympics medal haul thus far. No, that’s not depressing enough. To crank up the anguish to its max, you must turn haughty, create an antiquated tier system to rank the importance of each sport and then surmise that the Americans are even further off relevance’s radar.
The arrogant conclusion: If you think it’s bad that the United States might finish out of the top five in the medal standings despite having the largest team in Winter Olympics history, it’s worse when you consider it has been buoyed by kiddie-table sports such as snowboarding and freestyle skiing.
And that would be a dismissive and primitive way of thinking.
These Olympics shouldn’t mystify American traditionalists. If anything, it should force them to accept change, embrace the evolving interests of young athletes and show gratitude that the “extreme sports” have kept our national ego out of intensive care.
The supposed daredevil sports have accounted for 10 of the country’s 19 medals. They have captured five of the seven golds. Mikaela Shiffrin was celebrated for her giant slalom gold, but the Alpine skier shares the title of most impressive winning performance with shredders Chloe Kim, Red Gerard and Shaun White. And then there’s Jamie Anderson, who won her second straight snowboarding slopestyle gold medal despite winds that could have flown her back home.
“I just think a new wave of people are coming in, and it’s not all about getting timed against a clock,” said American freestyle skier Aaron Blunck, who is 21 and finished seventh in the halfpipe. “We’ve proved that we can actually go out and put down under pressure just as hard as they can. I think it’s cool. I really hope that people get the respect out of that and realize this is a cool sport. This is something that is very hard and takes true talent to do. At the end of the day, we’re still a sport like everything else, and I just hope we get the love that we deserve.”
There are plenty who love these sports. Widespread respect? Well, that’s a work in progress. We’re 23 years into the X Games era, believe it or not. Snowboarding was added to the Olympic program 20 years ago, for the 1998 Nagano Games. It started with halfpipe and giant slalom events for the men and women, and gradually, snowboarding has grown to represent a five-discipline chunk of the Winter Olympics. Freestyle skiing took off when moguls became a medal sport in 1992, and now it has five events, too.
The rise of these events has created something of a culture war. There are the new Winter Olympics, where being launched into the air and flipping and spinning is so cool. And there are the old Winter Olympics, where hockey, Alpine skiing, speedskating and figure skating overshadow everything else.
But what’s a snobby observer to do when Team USA stinks at most of the traditional and important stuff and excels at the new and fun? It’s only reasonable either to stop looking at the newer events as junk food or enjoy that you get to have candy bars for dinner.
Sports are cyclical, of course. For all the consternation about Team USA’s struggles in certain events, the reason could be as simple as the improvement of other nations and the presence of some once-in-a-generation stars pushing Americans to the background. In time, the United States won’t be dominant in snowboarding; in fact, the shift is already starting. New sports will emerge, and old sports will be available to be recaptured. That’s just how this works.
But now is no time to use success in an underappreciated area as a weapon to promote a failure narrative. It’s disappointing that the United States is falling just out of the arbitrarily hailed top three in many events. But it’s incredible that the extreme sports stars have grown from Olympic renegades to worthy of reverence for keeping America so competitive.
American snowboarders have earned six medals so far. That’s one fewer than the United States has racked up in Alpine skiing, speedskating, figure skating and hockey (counting the U.S. women, who are guaranteed gold or silver) combined. It’s strange to live in a world in which all three U.S. women’s figure skaters fall during the short program and find themselves out of medal contention. It’s strange to think that this will be the third straight Olympics without an American female winning an individual figure skating medal.
Maybe it’s just a slump. Maybe it’s indicative of greater issues, including the assortment of options that athletes have. There was a time when Kim might have had to put on skates and jumped and danced to music to win a Winter Olympics medal. But there’s a snowboarding halfpipe competition now. And she owns the sport. And she adds to the tradition of Peggy Fleming, Kristi Yamaguchi and even Bonnie Blair in her own way. There’s no asterisk because Kim isn’t a figure skater or speedskater. Kim, 17, is simply a gold medalist in a fresh sport who has the youth and potential to be a legend.
Still, there are moments when snowboarders and others feel like second-class Olympians. The most dramatic example came last week when officials forced the women’s snowboarding slopestyle final to be held in unsafe windy conditions. The performances were awful, and the athletes felt worse. They wanted it to be a showcase event, but it became a troubling sign that their sport isn’t as valued as others.
“And I think that’s complete B.S.,” said Anderson, who added a big air silver to her slopestyle gold. “We should have had an opportunity to perform in good weather, where we could showcase our good riding.”
Leave it to Hailey Langland, another 17-year-old snowboarder, to provide a different perspective. While disappointed on that windy day, she was also inspired.
“We literally looked like superhumans out there,” she said. “For all of us to ride through that kind of wind and keep charging, I think it’s really badass, and I’m proud.”
It’s time to stop minimizing the impact these superhumans have had on the Olympics in general. And with the Americans struggling at the Old Games, they can’t be viewed as the candy that threatens to ruin our teeth. They aren’t consolation prizes, either. They are, in a stunning role reversal, the Olympic heroes that the nation needs.
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