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The Olympics: Competing for the Love of the Sport
Escaping the abyssal pressure we've applied to the games, and getting back to what made them fun in the first place.
There are few people who have inspired me as much as Shaun White. His first Olympic appearance came soon after I started riding myself.
I’ve cheered for him in every Olympics since his debut in 2006.
I stood in line forever to meet him outside the dusty mountain boarding course at the 2010 Boy Scout Jamboree. He stayed after his scheduled meet-and-greet time to sign autographs for the fans who couldn’t make it to the front in time.
One of them was me.
I remember him asking, “What’s up, man?” as he scrawled his name across the brim of my hat in sharpie.
“Oh, you know, not much.”
Put simply, he was a cool dude and I wanted to be like him. Not on the competition side — I had no real dreams of grandeur on the world stage. What I admired about White is how much he seemed to love the sport.
By every account: he ate, breathed, and slept snowboarding. His enthusiasm was infectious and inspired me to love it too.
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“They’ve Trained Their Whole Life for this”
When several countries announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 games, there was some discussion of not sending athletes to compete at all. The most common argument I heard against this idea was usually something to the effect of: “It’s not fair to the competitors, they’ve trained their whole life for this.”
Is this really healthy?
Long term readers may already know where I’m going: I’ve long rallied against the “summit-or-bust” mindset; the belief that the only significant part of your journey is the moment your foot touches the tallest part of the mountain.
If you’re new here, my Trail Talk podcast guest Ty Ellenbogen articulates this point beautifully—
—assigning all value to a single moment undercuts the over-all experience. It also applies an enormous amount of unnecessary pressure.
The idea of training your entire life for a single moment is deeply depressing. It implies these athletes have gotten nothing else out of their years of hard work.
No joy. No satisfaction. No fulfillment without the glory of the podium.
I doubt all competitors in Beijing right now feel this way. But virtually every sport that’s been on the world stage longer than a decade has its own version of the athlete assembly line. Parents can sign over their toddlers to specialty trainers and programs, where they will be groomed to compete.
Go back and watch snowboarding’s 1998 Olympic debut and compare it to the modern day. The biggest difference I can describe is how much more casual it felt.
When a sport first makes the Olympic roster — before those enterprising coaches can start spinning that child-to-champion conveyor belt — we get to see the hipster competitors. The ones who stuck with the sport before the possibility of Olympic glory existed.
The ones who did it because they loved it, not because they were conscripts.
The Desensitizing Nature of Escalation
I damn near lost my mind when I watched Shaun White land the double McTwist 1260 during his victory lap in 2010. It was new, energizing, and exciting, especially since White didn’t even need to do it.
He’d already won with his first-round score. he could’ve ridden straight down the middle of the pipe, collected his medal, and been on his way.
Throwing down that trick, in that moment, was White saying, “Look at this cool thing I can do.”
It’s my favorite Olympic moment to date.
A little more than a decade later, this previously unreachable feat feels more like a requirement of anyone looking to punch their ticket to the games.
I’m not saying these feats are unimpressive. But escalation always comes with a fair bit of desensitization. It’s like watching a big CGI battle at the end of a blockbuster movie.
At a certain point, even the most incredible sights fade into visual noise.
Tell us about your favorite Olympic moment, or athlete who inspired you, in the comments!
My favorite athletes to watch have always had a cool story you could latch onto, one that transcended the sport itself:
The “Ham Fam” brother-sister curling duo in Pyeongchang
Shaun White trying to reclaim his crown after brutal defeat in Sochi
Scrappy, 17-year-old Red Gerard’s humble ascent to champion in 2018
You want them to win because there’s something about their life you can relate to, if not connect to. I care more about that humanity than I do the spectacle of it all.
This isn’t a new or revolutionary take; a lot of viewers feel this way.
But consider this on the heels of Simone Biles withdrawing from competition in Tokyo last year for her own mental health. I have to wonder how many other athletes are being crushed by the pressure of, “They’ve trained their whole life for this moment.”
How many people are competing because they feel they have to, not because they actually love what they’re doing?
These questions make it harder to find and latch onto satisfying underdog stories.
That, coupled with a tangible decline in national unity and pride means fewer people are cheering just for the sake of Team U.S.A. taking home the most hardware.
The general tone becomes one of, “Yeah, it’s impressive, but why do I care?”
Returning to the Love of the Sport
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to cover a different kind of event at Eldora, in Colorado. “Ms. Superpark” did not have a grandstand full of spectators. The whole thing was extremely informal.
Riders would sit on the snow at the top of the terrain park, cheering on their own competition as they threw down their best tricks. The whole thing felt like a group of great friends, hanging out on the mountain.
The women I spoke with — off to the sides of jumps, atop the halfpipe, or riding the chairlift back for another run — were among the biggest names in the sport. Some told me this was the event they look forward to most, each year.
I didn’t feel like I was watching a competition, though a winner is declared each year. Everyone was just psyched to be there, having a good time.
It’s nice to know some of us still carry around that spark of joy and passion. But it also makes me think about how far away we’ve gotten from the original purpose of these activities: having fun while we pass the time.
During a recent news conference, Shaun White announced these Olympic games will be his last. He reflected on his many contributions to the sport. But he also seemed to look forward to the day where he’ll be able to hit the halfpipe without worrying about new tricks and high scores.
After all these years, this is the sentiment I’m most inspired by.
The Olympics kindled my love for snowboarding and fostered a life-long passion.
I hope that in the years to come, others will rise to prominence for their palpable love of their sport; for an appreciation that goes beyond pure glory.
And I hope their stories will connect with young viewers, inspiring the next generation of athletes to seek their passion.