Road to the Olympic Games: Big air is a big deal

Hosted by veteran broadcasters Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo, Road to the Olympic Games chronicles athletes’ journeys on and off the field of play. Here’s what to look for on this weekend’s show on CBC Television and

The time worn Olympic credo “faster, higher, stronger,” is getting a massive rewrite as a new wave of sports assume command of centre stage at the Games.

Sports, which for the most part, have been quantifiable, are being challenged by pursuits which involve jaw-dropping acts of daredevilry and require judgement calls. 

Head-to-head races, time trials against the clock, vertical and horizontal jumps which exceed measureable barriers of height, speed and distance, as well as combat struggles, are giving way to feats of amazement.

The appearance of skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing at the next Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 are all a testament to this sporting evolution. So is the proliferation of freestyle and snowboarding events at recent winter editions of the Games. Whereas figure skating was arguably the only judged sport a few quadrennials ago, the Olympic program on ice and snow is now loaded with subjectivity.

More and more in the modern age, it’s becoming a fact that landing the most difficult trick can lead to gold and ultimately Olympic glory.

Of particular note is the impending debut of snowboarding’s big air extravaganza at the Pyeongchang Olympics which are now a scant 15 months away. Firmly established and wildly popular in the X-Games stratosphere, big air is exactly what it professes itself to be. It amounts to a gigantic game of double-dog dare to see who can pull off what is commonly believed to be the unfathomable.

Pushing the boundaries

It’s pushing the boundaries to the extreme and it has the potential to build a huge new audience for the Olympic movement which is desperately trying to keep itself relevant to a younger demographic that craves excitement.

“The IOC has shown that they want to entice young viewers and they feel they need to do that with action sports,” says professional snowboarder, filmmaker, and CBC Sports analyst Craig McMorris. 

“They view these sports as a sort of way forward. To say big air has been introduced because of attention span could be partially, true but I think the bigger reason is that it’s spectacular to watch and a younger audience may associate with it more.”

Indeed, big air has proven to be a constant connection for sports fans in the digital age. The exploits of riders like Canadian champions Max Parrot and Mark McMorris are easily consumable on hand-held devices at any moment of the day. 

The spectacle of snowboarding is now a movable feast and available 24-7 because many of the best athletes are recording the evidence of their wizardry and disseminating it globally through their burgeoning networks.

Still, big Air, like Slopestyle before it, is still a work in progress at the developmental level. The talent pool can only become deeper once the sport gains Olympic credentials.

“Big Air is very digestible for a viewer compared with some of the other judged Olympic sports,” says Alexandra Duckworth, a former big air world junior medallist and Canadian Olympian in halfpipe. “A viewer can turn on the TV and immediately have an understanding of the sport. It’s one jump and athletes are judged on the difficulty of their tricks. Did they push the envelope? And did they execute? Was it smooth?”

Olympic landscape

While it may ruffle the feathers of some traditionalists, snowboarding is undeniably a game changer on the Olympic landscape. It’s a growth sport globally and while the IOC is counting on it and other sports like it to spark a renaissance, big air also needs the world’s most grandiose stage on which to perform and ultimately to sell its wares.

“For years we’ve been asking how far can it go and it hasn’t seemed to slow just yet,” says Duckworth of the increasingly difficult level of competition.  “If that trend continues, I think big air will be popular at the Olympics for the long haul.”

Craig McMorris is in total agreement.

“Slopestyle was one of the most viewed events of the 2014 Games and I saw that first hand simply through social media. The amount of response and buzz around the new event was a lot more than I expected,” he confesses.

“Grassroots snowboarding will grow because of the inclusion of big air.  Another event in the Games means more national team funding which will trickle down to clubs and teams that develop young riders at grass roots levels. Simply put, the more eyeballs on the sport, the more explaining we get to do, and the more kids will want to go out and try. The Olympics are the best thing that can happen for snowboarding.”

This is a sport that lives and dies by landing the big trick. But the illusion these athletes are capable of creating is very real.

To be metaphorical, big air and the Olympics will soon form a match made in heaven and the sky’s the limit.

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