No mountains, turn to freestyle!

Introduction

Alpine skiing events are dominated by countries who have the luxury of snow capped mountains, for obvious reasons. Figure 1 shows that 85% of Alpine skiing medals at the Olympics have been won by only 7 countries. The mountainous countries appear to have a monopoly on the medals and the obvious question is; can countries without established ski resorts really compete on the world stage? I think the simple answer is no, when referring to traditional alpine ski racing. My colleague Leon Foster published a very interesting paper on the relationship between population size and athletic performance which showed that the larger the population participating in a sport, the higher the probability of finding an exceptional athlete. Mountainous countries with extensive high quality ski resorts inevitably have a larger population participating in alpine skiing from a very young age. Hence, the dominance of Austria and Switzerland in figure 1.

Figure 1. Alpine skiing medals at the Olympics per country.

The rise of Slopestyle

Freestyle skiing and snowboarding events, such as Slopestyle, may be the best option for countries who don’t possess the natural requirements for practicing traditional alpine ski racing. The best female Slopestyle snowboarder in the world is currently Jenny Jones, who has 3 Winter X-Games gold medals to her name (Video 1). Originating from the UK Jenny is the exception to the rule, she started snowboarding relatively late, doing her first winter season in Tignes after finishing school. The focus of Freestyle events, such as Slopestyle, is technical aerial maneuvers as opposed to speed. Therefore, different training methods and facilities are required to ensure success.  A large factor in Jenny’s remarkable success, in addition to her obvious talent, is likely to be the fact that she competed in gymnastics as a teenager. However, the UK is unlikely to be granted another Jenny Jones due to the limited population currently participating in freestyle snowboarding.

Video 1. Jenny Jones gold medal winning run in the Slopestyle competition at the 2010 European Winter X-Games.

There are approximately 40 indoor snow slopes worldwide, with more being built as you read. These slopes act to increase the size of the local population regularly participating in skiing and snowboarding. Although not particularly well suited for training traditional alpine ski racers they are ideally suited for Slopestyle training and competitions, as shown in video 2. Indoor freestyle parks even offer a number of advantages over outdoor freestyle parks located in alpine ski resorts. In particular, indoor freestyle parks allow all year training in constant conditions. Combined with state-of-the art coaching tools, such as dry training facilities (trampolines etc…), video playback and even motion analysis, indoor freestyle parks could potentially gain the upper hand.

Video 2. A Slopestyle competition at an indoor snow slope.

Conclusion

We are unlikely to see Jenny Jones obtain Olympic glory in the near future, as Slopestyle is yet to become an Olympic event. Including Slopestyle in the Olympics would provide a well needed shake up of the system and hopefully result in a wider distribution of medals than shown in figure 1.  In the meantime, the best option for countries not blessed with snowy mountains is to invest in an Olympic standard indoor halfpipe (Figure 2) with a full suite of coaching tools.

Figure 2. Snowboarders in an F.I.S. standard indoor halfpipe.

 

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About Dr Tom Allen

Dr Tom Allen is a lecturer in engineering design at Sheffield Hallam University. He leads the University's BSc (Hons) Sports Technology course and is the associate editor of Sports Engineering.

3 Responses

  1. Rob

    Hi Tom,
    I totally agree that we have some of the best slopestyle riders in the world now – especially when it comes to rails- thanks to our indoor snow slopes and dry slope roots.
    But how likely that this discipline will ever make the olympics? Moreover, how important is it for a sport to be in the olympics? There are so many other snowboard comps and video opportunities besides.
    Good writing though, thanks 🙂

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