A snowboarder riding down a 600-meter long mountain, making triple flips off metal rails, skiers doing a double flip over a 22-foot halfpipe. These used to be scenes only possible in sponsored winter sports tours and the X Games. But not this year. This week, they’ll join the list of sports competed at the pinnacle of athletic competition: the Olympics.
Of the 12 sports added to the Sochi 2014 Olympic schedule, nine are rooted in extreme winter sports. It’s part of a growing trend among the Winter Olympics to adopt extreme in hopes of attracting ratings, particularly from the coveted advertising-friendly younger audience.
"The inclusion of these events on the Olympic Winter Games program is sure to be appreciated by athletes and sports fans alike," said IOC President Jacques Rogge in a statement at the time of the sports’ induction (the IOC declined Fusion’s requests for an interview). "These are exciting, entertaining events that perfectly complement the existing events on the sports programme, bring added appeal and increase the number of women participating at the Games. I look forward to watching the athletes compete in these events in Sochi 2014."
Key words: exciting, entertaining and added appeal. Otherwise known as ratings draws.
“The biggest consideration for a new event has to do with broadcasting rights and whether or not a sport is going to be watched by the audience,” said the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies, Janice Forsyth.
It’s not just broadcast appeal; Olympic sports up for contention must also meet other requirements. they must be competitive in a wide-range of countries, have an international organizing body, have standardized judging and they must have a world championship. But ultimately, the Olympics are a business. “It’s all about selling the product of sport to the audience,” Forsyth said.
Extreme sports are particularly attractive for the Olympics because they have proven ratings success with ESPN’s X Games, which in 2012 drew in 35.4 million viewers. In contrast, ratings for the Winter Olympics have struggled. While the 2006 Turin Games were beat in the U.S. ratings by American Idol, in 2010, snowboarder Shaun White helped make the Vancouver Games the highest rated Winter Olympics yet, with 30.1 million viewers on the night he took home gold in the halfpipe.
These extreme sports draw in ratings because they can be enjoyed without having to know much about the sport. “The audience can appreciate the risks,” Forsyth said. “You don’t have to have a lot of technical knowledge to appreciate these sports.” Meaning, people can watch snowboarders jump on a metal rail and flip three times, or a skier jump out of a halfpipe and flip while in a split, and just be entertained.
“Skiing is a visually spectacular sport,” said Mike Douglass, the “godfather of freesking,”a subset of skiers who ride more like snowboarders with tricks, flips, spins, etc off of halfpipes and down slopes. “It’s a dreamer’s type sport,” he said.
Besides adding extreme sports; the IOC is also tweaking existing sports to attract viewers. Team figure skating, mixed luge relay and mixed biathlon relay, are closely routed in older and traditional events, but just different enough to garner some new attention.
“What you see in the more traditional sports are minor tweaks in the program to appeal to more people,” Forsyth said. So the IOC will create a new version of an existing sport to create intrigue. For example, in the case of figure skating, creating a team event because between singles and doubles, athletes are reaching the limit of how many jumps and spins they can do.
“We see a lot more team events now,” Forsyth said. “Because four people are better than one.”
The irony of the extreme events added to Sochi’s roster (ski halfpipe, ski slopestyle, snowboard slopestyle and snowboard parallel slalom — which are all competed for both men and women) is that they were were born from athletes who were fighting the Olympic model. “We were fighting that there were so many rules and regulations and this idea that sport only matters every four years,” said Douglass.
After only years of competing independently through the X Games and competitions like the Dew Tour, these sports were screened in tens of millions of U.S. homes, and started to grow in popularity. Now in the Olympics, “I think more than anything it sort of legitimizes the sport in the eyes of the general public,” Douglass said.
In 1998, when snowboarding was added to the Olympics in both halfpipe and slalom events for men and women, the halfpipe was competed at 8-feet high. As a result, without as much height to gain momentum, athletes did not jump as high as modern competitions. The highlight reel for the Nagano Games halfpipe looks amateur by comparison.
In Sochi, halfpipe walls will be 22-feet high, as the standard Olympic halfpipe height was changed from 18 to 22 feet in Vancouver in 2010. The added height means that athletes can gain more momentum, which brings them higher in the air, and gives them more time and space to do that extra flip or turn or grab.
“That’s the part that makes me nervous, for sure” said Douglas. “The athletes have pushed the sports so far so quickly that we’re starting to run out of options here and sustainability of these types of events is a big issue.”
Injury is a very real concern. There have been two serious injuries in preparation for Sochi. On Jan. 10, Austrian ski jumper Thomas Morgenstern was hospitalized with skull injuries after a bad crash in practice. On Jan. 27, a Brazilian ski aerialist was paralyzed after an accident she had while training to make the Olympic team. She cannot currently feel or move her arms or legs.
One of the most tragic recent examples, in 2012, freestyle skier Sarah Burke was killed in a practice halfpipe run after she landed wrong. Although she never got to compete in the Olympics, Burke was an instrumental in getting ski halfpipe included in the 2014 program.
And then there’s Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed during a practice run at the Vancouver Olympics. People at the time knew the Vancouver luge track was the fastest in the world, and possibly the most dangerous.
A 2007 study by Alun Ackery, an emergency physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, published by the University of Toronto, found that there was a significant increase in brain and spinal cord injuries among skiers at the same time that helmet use was also being increased.
“In my opinion, I feel that with the risk in skiing, as as athletes have become better, they’re finding new ways to stretch their abilities and with that comes this risk,” Ackery said via a phone interview.
But the rise in extreme sports in the Olympics is unlikely to change. People will continue to watch, these sports will continue to get ratings for the Olympics and the IOC will continue to seek out these sports for various reasons (mostly financial). “It has to do with the Olympics motto of ‘higher, faster, stronger,’” Forsyth said. “We’re attracted to the sports that are very risky and we’re attracted to watching them.”