An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.
Because of its fast-paced action, soaring jumps, and spectacular wipeouts, snowboarding has quickly grown from a stepchild Olympic sport to a true fan favorite.
Field of Play
Snowboarding is contested on slopes with heavy degrees of human shaping. The halfpipe, where freestyle snowboarding takes place, is a carved snow trough, about 110 meters (360 feet) long and 13 to 17 meters (42 to 56 feet) wide, with walls about 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) high. The parallel giant slalom course is much like those used in
alpine skiing for a giant slalom: A set of gates set 7 to 15 meters (23 to 50 feet) apart over a vertical drop of 120 to 250 meters (394 to 800 feet) so racers can compete side to side, making turns all the way down the course. Snowboard cross courses are long, undulating trails—just barely wide enough if all four competitors were to run side by side—with a series of whoop-de-do jumps.
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Format, Rules, and Strategy
Snowboarding at the Olympics has evolved since its first inclusion as a medal sport in Nagano in 1998. That year, the giant slalom was just that: a single rider running a course of gates. To add more excitement, particularly for TV, the event morphed into the parallel giant slalom for the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Games. Under the new format, racers run on side-by side courses. Timed qualifying runs narrow the field to 16 competitors, who enter a single-elimination tournament. The elimination matches actually consist of two races: One run is taken and then the racers switch sides. Double winners move on; if there’s a split, the combined times of the two runs decides it.
The halfpipe competition has remained the same. The scoring is an arbitrary judging system, not unlike figure skating, in which riders are awarded points for tricks and jumps. Rest assured, snowboarding is the only sport in which competitors earn a separate score for “amplitude,” or the speed and height of the move, coupled with the “energy” of the rider. Other scoring factors include difficulty, variety, execution of tricks, and the overall flow of the run. Deductions are made for falls. In the finals, six riders take two runs each, with only the best score of the two counting.
In 2006, Turin Games organizers, in a deft move, added snowboard cross, a bow to the X Games generation of television snow sports watchers. In this event, riders race in a pack of four down a course with big-air jumps; sharp, banked corners; and other obstacles. It’s gripping action, with plenty of body contact and occasional come-from-behind victories at the finish line.
A series of knockout heats are conducted, with the first two finishers moving on to the next round, until a final in which the only four remaining duel head-to-head. Some contact is allowed, but outright interference is verboten. The format proved so popular that Vancouver organizers added the similar ski cross event for the 2010 Games.
Training and Equipment
Most snowboarders train primarily by riding. Off-slope work includes using muscle-toning equipment, flexibility training, trampoline exercises, and balancing exercises on a Swiss ball.
Even though the sport of snowboarding is only about three decades old, the modern competition snowboard is a far cry from early versions. Freestyle boards, used in the halfpipe and other trick-riding events, are between 134 and 160 centimeters long (depending on the size and riding style of the rider) and about 24 centimeters wide. The boards are twin-tipped, allowing them to land and slide both frontward and backward.
Alpine boards, used for slalom racing and snowboard cross, are designed for speed. They range from 145 to 175 centimeters long and about 18 to 20 centimeters wide. They have a distinctly squared tail, which aids in carving longer-radius turns.
Alpine riders wear hard-shelled plastic boots, similar to alpine ski boots, for direct transmission of body weight to board edge. Freestyle riders wear soft, flexible boots, which create more subtle pressure on the edges of the board.
Alpine riders wear crash helmets, goggles, and bodysuits built for racing. Freestyle riders typically wear baggy clothing and soft hats.