words: Pat Bridges and Henning Andersen
Self-determination is a tenet of the human condition that everyone strives for. While there are still those who are subjugated and oppressed due to circumstances beyond their control, all peoples yearn for freedom from servitude. While this common trait has grand implications in terms of humanity, it is no less important when applied to competitive snowboarding. Sure, some might find the idea of snowboarders fighting for self-governance trivial when compared to the Arab Spring or the archaic institutions of oppression in places like North Korea or Pakistan. Those same people casting judgment on this correlation would also see sleeping overnight in a resort parking lot just to get first chair after a storm, the choice of an irrational mind as well.
As of late, the institution of the Olympics and the cronies who prop up and profit from the buying and selling of sportsmanship's largest stage have seen the façade of idealism that is their stock and trade begin to erode. Ironically, populism, which has traditionally been the engine that runs the Olympic hype machine, has shifted away from blindly supporting the fiscally irresponsible and ideologically corrupt games. It is no surprise that the only two remaining host bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics—Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan—are both from nations with deplorable human rights records. In turn, progressive cities like Munich, Germany; Oslo, Norway; Stockholm, Sweden; and Davos, Switzerland have withdrawn from IOC consideration. In other words, the only countries that are left to hold the Olympics are those where the population doesn't have any say in the matter. Not that this is anything new. All you need to know about where the IOC stands in regards to human rights is to remember that Hitler hosted the Olympics in Nazi Germany in 1936.
The Fédération Internationale de Ski is partnered with the International Olympic Committee in promoting and organizing everything that has to do with snowboarding and the Olympics. This relationship began in the mid-nineties and hasn't waivered ever since, despite our sport making several attempts to unify competitors under a sanctioning body we could call our own with a separate tour, sponsorships, media package, rankings list, etc. Ultimately, these efforts have yielded mediocre results because of lack of rider and industry support. Presumably this is due to these organizations being unable to gain momentum in parallel to the FIS with its Olympic connection. Yet at no point have these proprietary organizations been given 100% support from the riders, snowboarding industry or media. No one committed. No one said, "Fuck you" to the FIS by boycotting their skier-run contests. Well, almost no one. In 1997, the Nagano Olympic favorite, Terje Haakonsen did just that. He voiced sentiments about Olympic corruption and cronyism that are only now being mimicked by mainstream media.
Recently, Terje Haakonsen and his Arctic Challenge partner, Henning Andersen acquired an internal FIS/IOC report on the TV ratings for the snowboarding events as compared to skiing competitions during the most recent Sochi Olympics. This document and Henning and Terje's release of this material is meant to once again ignite the argument that the Olympics needs snowboarding more than snowboarding needs The Games. Therefore, we as snowboarders should make demands, receive concessions, re-explore the option of having our own sanctioning body and take control back, not from the skiers per se, but more importantly from the corrupt businessmen who see snowboarding as a profit center and snowboarders as ignorant conduits to their greed.
– Pat Bridges
Here, Arctic Challenge CEO Henning Andersen presents the case for more activism within snowboarding's professional ranks:
In 1998, snowboarding made its debut at the Olympics. It immediately became a success. Throughout the 1990s, Terje Haakonsen was more triumphant in halfpipe snowboarding than Christiano Ronaldo is in soccer today. He said no to the Olympics because the IOC gave his sport to the International Ski Federation (FIS). Terje was only twenty-four. According to his peers at the time he could easily have won the gold medal, but his consciousness said no. To this day, he is the only individual athlete having said no to the IOC and the Olympics based on sports political reasons. In all these years after his decision, he has been warning his fellow snowboarders about the Olympic pitfall, and it is about time we started listening to him.
Snowboarding is an enormous success in the Olympics, but the Olympics are a tragedy for snowboarding. This paradox is the source of major frustration and fragmentation in a young and positive sport. We call it the big robbery. Recent figures from FIS show that snowboarding has become their most important sport in the Olympics. Of all FIS sports in the Olympics, snowboarding had 28% of all TV exposure worldwide. This is much more than their traditional heritage of alpine skiing, cross-country skiing and ski jumping. Alpine, for instance, has 19% of the exposure. We don't have access to IOC information about all Olympic sports, but we assume ice hockey is the biggest. Whether snowboarding has more or less exposure than figure skating, we don't know, but we are certain that snowboarding is a top-three Olympic sport. For a youth movement created by a handful of people in the US in the seventies and eighties, this is an amazing story. It took snowboarding sixteen years to surpass Olympic sports with more than one hundred years of history! NBC recently bought the Olympic rights until 2032 from IOC for seven billion dollars. It was certainly not motivated by airing cross-country or ski jumping live. During the Olympic Games in Vancouver, snowboarding and Shaun White gained the second highest ratings of all live airings on NBC.
Where does all the money go? We in snowboarding certainly don't see any of it. IOC has a turnover of around five billion dollars each four-year term, covering one summer and one winter edition of the Olympic Games. NBC is the main contributor. Coca Cola, McDonalds, Samsung and Visa are the largest sponsors. IOC claims it keeps 10%. The remaining 90% is passed on to sports organizations worldwide. They call it the Olympic family. The Summer Olympics, as the main event, drives most of the turnover. If we assume that 70% comes from the Summer Olympics and 30% from the Winter Olympics, we have 1.35 billion dollars from the Winter Olympics. Half of it goes to the host city, the other half to the International Federations (FIS). FIS holds 50% of all sports disciplines in the Winter Olympics, so a simple calculation would give FIS their fair share of 340 million dollars for each edition of the Games, for instance Sochi. If we were to use TV exposure figures as a key for splitting the money between the Olympic FIS sports, then snowboarding, with its 28% of all FIS TV exposure, should receive a fair share of 100 million dollars for each Winter Olympics. A substantial amount probably disappears into the black hole of FIS administration and other FIS sports, but surely some of it must be spent for the greater good of snowboarding?
We know snowboarding event organizers who have given up their FIS World Cup status because they have not received monetary support from FIS. We also know that no snowboarders can live off the prize money offered in the FIS World Cup. Furthermore, we know that FIS media reports point out that TV exposure for their snowboarding world cup is at an all time low. Most importantly, we know that the multiple world tours created when IOC gave the snowboarding qualification rights to FIS are destroying competitive snowboarding. Before FIS, snowboarders had their own exclusive tour and federation. ISF (International Snowboarding Federation) was a young organization, and snowboarding was a young sport, but they managed to get a tour going. And the prize money back then was, in fact, much more substantial than today. Not to mention the snowboard sales! Snowboarders still have their own tour, but it is on the verge of collapse due to the situation with multiple tours. IOC, FIS and the national federations—all of them except Norway are members of FIS—are forcing the athletes to qualify for the Olympics through the FIS World Cup (the Norwegian athletes also participate). The TV networks, which are the key drivers of all sports income, turn down snowboarding because they don't understand which of the tours has the best athletes. And who can blame them? On any given day they could receive phone calls from Infront selling FIS products, IMG selling the World Snowboard Tour, Quattro/CAA selling Air & Style and ESPN selling X Games. How on earth can they grasp which one has the best riders and products?
Instead, they trust that all the best athletes will compete during the Winter Olympics. They know it's a significant global event. In these circumstances, snowboarding is king. No other sport has enjoyed such a fast-paced Olympic growth in modern times. The tragedy is that half of the major events, and half of the prize money, disappeared during the Sochi Olympics season. The prize money in TTR (World Snowboard Tour) has been good, but today only the US Open and the European Open are left at the top level. Only a handful of professional snowboarders can live off prize money these days. How can the IOC, which claims it works for the greater good of sports, simply watch this unfold? Could it be for the same reasons that they simply observe that winter sports nations such as Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway don't want to host the Winter Olympics anymore? Have they noticed that these democratic countries, with a strong sports heritage, don't wish to contribute to the Olympic idea anymore? Do they understand what's happening, or are they too old-fashioned and lazy to do anything about it?
It is equally impossible to understand that the professional snowboarders are joining this destructive trend. Even if they are sent out alone in the world at a young age, do they have an upbringing that taught them to separate right from wrong? By dropping in at numerous FIS World Cups, they support the system. Surely they must understand that this is wrong? We have been trying to get that message through for fifteen years, but it doesn't seem to work. All those who know their tennis history also know that athletes wield all the power when they stand together. Most snowboarders complain about the Olympics situation, but at the same time they choose to participate in the FIS qualifications. The only language that the corporate cats at the IOC and FIS understand is boycotting. Boycotting the enforced FIS qualifications would leave the IOC and FIS without a TV and sponsor product. This would receive global media attention. The IOC would be questioned by NBC and their sponsors. FIS would be hassled by their partners. This is the most effective tool to reach a solution. But the best riders get their travel and coaching support from their federations, and they are listening to their IOC/FIS-paid coaches and managers, who obviously don't have any interest in changing the game.
With fifteen years of experience hosting The Arctic Challenge, we know the costs of things. An Olympic qualification round with six stops worldwide will cost approximately 10 million dollars each season. Is it unfair that the IOC pays half? Out of snowboarding revenues of 100 million dollars, contributing 20 million dollars over a four-year-period is perhaps reasonable? With that kind of financial guarantee, snowboarding event organizers and federations would have no problems getting the remaining sum from TV networks and sponsors. They could then finally rest assured that this world tour would guarantee the best riders and the best TV product, and their willingness to invest would follow. These are simple calculations, and it is hard to understand why so few get it. If the ignorance continues, athletes cannot make a living off competitive snowboarding. What a paradox. The greatest success in modern day Olympics must shut down—maybe alongside the Winter Olympics itself? Many share this responsibility, but most of all the IOC. With snowboarding, the IOC has a golden opportunity to prove that they mean business by showing that they are more open, more democratic and more modern than their critics say they are.
– Henning Andersen