Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vancouver 2010 - Soar like Big Ginger Birds!

One evening this week we sat down to watched the Olympic Snowboarding Half-Pipe Competitions.
We started with the women's half-pipe event; we wanted to watch Torah Bright win her Gold.  The event was an absolute hoot. It has a TOTALLY different athletic vibe to other downhill events -intensely cool, deeply laid back. The competitors rock out to their ipods (apple corporate logos front and center, baby!) while waiting to start their runs, and keep the music going while they scream down the hill.

During the run, technique is loose and shambling to eyes accustomed to Alpine skiing.  We compared it to the Mogul event, which we'd watched the previous night and which is about perfect technique - precise form consistent on every single bump down the mountain.  In the half pipe - as long as you get to the other side of the bowl, knees and elbows are somewhat irrelevant.   And at the bottom, goofy smiles and fist-pumps replace shoulder shuddering angst - there's a YEAH MAN West Coast thing going on.

At Nagano in 1998, Ross Rebagliati, the gold medalist in the giant slalom was (after the fact) found to have done his runs high on weed.  His medal was confiscated, presumably to the accompaniment of high pitched giggles of incredulity across the Olympic judging committee. You have to be quite exquisitely laid back to have thought competing in international competition on any drugs would go over well.
The medal was later given back to him.  After all, the joke apparently goes, weed is hardly a performance enhancing drug - unless there's a mars bar waiting at the bottom of the run.

I guess that this is what a sport is like in its infancy - enthusiasts get together and have a good time and gradually the sport is codified and develops a body of technique.  During the women's competition, one of the NBC commentators told us solemnly that "this is NOT a' practice all day' kind of sport.  It's a 'fall in love with it, learn the moves one by one as you feel the vibe' sport.  And THAT'S how you get good."  Unfortunately for his philosophy, the next snowboarder out the gate was China's first ever snowboard entry - who proceeded to blow the competition off the mountain.  If the Chinese keep this up, the sport is going to get very interesting, and very different, very quickly.

In the Women's event the boarders tended to clip the edge of the half-pipe as they came down from their jumps and they splattered all over the bowl.  They got some good air despite the clipping.  We thought that their jumps were pretty impressive.  Then we turned on the Men's event, and holy HOOTENANEY!  The air!  The flips!  The back flips!

Torah Bright was the only woman to attempt a single back flip during her run.  The men wouldn't have rested at the women's level in a corn-snow warm-up session.  They grabbed six metres of air as a starting maneuver, and sailed on to perform off-axis flips and multiple twists.  And they moved FAST.

I'm wondering if that's the difference between the two styles. The men are big men with much more mass than the women, and because of it they gather more momentum as they drop down the hill.  This acceleration lets the jumps get larger and more complicated as they drop toward the base of the run.  By contrast, the women do their big stunts early and taper off as they drop - they don't seem to have the speed to get the height to clear the edge of the bowl consistently - and catching that ridge of snow slows them even further, and narrows the window for big jumps.

As for Shaun White, the American demi-god who won the men's Gold Half-Pipe - it's a wonderful thing to watch an event and see someone win a gold medal not because he fought tooth and nail for every inch, but because you are watching that magical circumstance where the whole field are astonishing and closely matched in their near-perfection, and yet above that magic one athlete stands so far above that he doesn't even appear to be riding in the same competition. Shaun White flew like a bird - a large, demented bird who pulled off two spins and three and a half backward flips (his signature Double McTwist 1260) as he came across the finish line.

In the Half-Pipe, each competitor takes two runs - the second run in ascending order of scores from the first run.  Final standings take the highest of the two scores. Shaun's score on his first run was so dazzling that nobody matched it.  He won the competition standing at the top of the hill waiting to take the last run of the evening.

There was a microphone pickup up there with him. He danced and hollered and hugged his coach and asked him:
“What should I do?"
"Anything you want."
"Go straight down the middle?!"
(Stern pause) “NO."

So they plotted out an exhibition run, and if we'd thought the man could ride that snowboard like a god - it was NOTHING to what he could do without any pressure on him.  I don't think anyone remembered that this run would even be graded, until a score came up that was so stratospheric the audience fainted en masse and the commentators broke their microphones screaming for joy.

It was quite an evening.

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