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New school skiers boycott FIS

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Skiers, event organizers feel skiing’s governing body will stifle creativity

In the mid-1990s, the ski industry was flat-lining. Wounded in the snowboarding revolution, surgeons tried mouth to mouth resuscitation. When that failed, they broke out the defibrillators and attempted to shock the industry back to life.

Parabolic skis helped restore skiing’s pulse in the late ’90s, but not enough to bring about a full recovery.

All it needed, it seems, was a shot of adrenaline.

It was only a few years ago that skiers began to take a few tentative runs through the terrain parks, over the tabletops and down the halfpipes. Terrain Parks were once closed to skiers, and snowboarders would yell at any two-planker who invaded their turf.

The scene has undergone some radical changes since then – the skis are different, the terrain parks are equal opportunity, and the same people who would have told you that skiing was on its last legs a few years ago are in awe of the new school skiers. Snowboarders still yell at two-plankers in the park, but more often than not it’s approval.

From a marketing point of view, new school has entered the mainstream with feature videos and magazines, sponsored athletes and well-attended competitions. Until very recently, this growth was created by and fuelled by the athletes themselves.

In the Dec. 1 issue of Pique , new school skier and High North Ski Camp director Shane Szocs took out a full page ad asking people not to support a new school Big Air competition, hosted by the International Ski Federation (FIS) in conjunction with a freestyle World Cup aerials event.

"In the past couple of years there has been a huge amount of progression in skiing and it’s because of the freedom we now have as skiers," wrote Szocs. "There is no question that if we follow the road with FIS to a World Cup Big Air tour the momentum and energy we’ve helped create will quickly fade away. It will also split the athletes up into separate tours as it did in snowboarding, which is the last thing we need as a young and evolving sport."

Almost as significant as the challenge to the FIS was the support that the letter generated among new school skiers. By the time the ad was printed, it was backed by more than 40 industry players, including members of the ski press, filmmakers and, most importantly, some of the biggest names in the sport.

The list of athletes includes Mike Douglas, Seth Morrison, Vincent Dorion, Ken Kreitler, Philou Poirier, JP Auclair, Brad Holmes, Evan Raps, Shane Anderson, Mike Atkinson, Marc McDonell, Skogan Sprang, Shane McConkey, Shannon Schad, Julien Regnier-Lafforge, Anthony Boronowski, Michel Beaudry, Josh Loubek, and the three Phil’s – Belanger, Dion and Larose.

If you’ve watched any videos featuring new school skiers in the last few years, chances are you’ve seen a few of these athletes in action. Many of these skiers were instrumental in establishing the sport by innovating new tricks, by working with ski companies to develop new school equipment, and by setting up competitions.

"If the general consensus was that (new school) should be an FIS event, so be it," says Szocs. "But the reaction we got, not just from the letter but by circulating the letter through the ski industry in the week or two before it went out, supported the boycott. No FIS.

"On one hand (FIS involvement) would definitely mean more events, but the creativity of the sport and the progression of the athletes are what we are most concerned about. The FIS isn’t really able to keep up with the progression of their sports right now, especially in freestyle."

True to their word, none of the athletes or ski press on the list showed up to the Big Air competition on Blackcomb. One new school skier who didn’t get on the list attended the event, but kept shouting at the jumpers to "do it for the money, not the FIS."

The FIS is the governing body for a wide range of winter sports, including freestyle and alpine skiing, but has been widely criticized by the snowboarding industry for dividing the athletes between FIS and the International Snowboard Federation (ISF). Many pro snowboarders still believe that the ISF, which has been running snowboard events since the very beginning, should be the only body to govern international snowboarding contests.

However, the FIS secured the rights to run the Olympic snowboard events for the Nagano Olympics, and all athletes that wish to compete in the 2002 Winter Games have no choice but to compete in FIS events in order to qualify.

Some athletes saw this as a slap in the face, mainly because the prize money was lower in FIS events, and the events lacked the energy and exposure of ISF competitions. This season the FIS increased the prize money to lure in the big name talent, but many big names still choose to compete in the IFS.

If the FIS becomes more involved in new school skiing, Szocs feels that the organization will eventually split up the new school skiers into two camps – those who want FIS and those who don’t. In the end, Szocs feels that the FIS can’t help but dampen the new school excitement with its notoriously stiff regulations and management practices.

"For about four years now, mogul skiers have been able to flip, or at least a lot of them have, and it’s something that they keep saying they want to be able to do in competitions. The FIS is really slow to recognize that ability in the athletes, and the stiff judging format and bureaucracy makes it hard to make those changes," says Szocs.

"We want to see the skiers benefiting from these events, not the FIS. If you’re involved in the FIS, whether it be freestyle or racing or whatever, they tell you what sponsors you can have what clothing to wear, what size your patches are allowed to be, so it’s pretty limiting for the athletes in how they can make an income from it."

In response to the letter, FIS Freestyle Chairman Chris Robinson met with Szocs and a few supporting skiers to discuss the ad at a meeting facilitated by Whistler-Blackcomb. Szocs wanted to find out how far FIS intended to go with new school competitions, and the FIS wanted to know if it were possible to work out an arrangement that would allow the big name skiers to attend their event.

"I left the meeting with a good understanding of what their concerns are, and I think it was positive," says Robinson. "I think it will eventually lead to more constructive discussions of this down the road."

In a recent letter to Powder magazine, Robinson elaborated on the FIS’s view of the conflict between new school skiers and the FIS.

"All of a sudden there is controversy swirling around freestyle skiing which otherwise has been left for dead, or at least presumed a goner, in some circles in recent years. Well, I am pleased to report that the sport’s alive and recuperating with a new World Cup sponsor (Suzuki) and that yes, FIS freestyle is sanctioning New Style events in conjunction with World Cup competitions this season."

Robinson says that the goal is to create new competitive opportunities and prize money events for athletes, to promote safety in new school events, and to promote the link between classic freestyle events (moguls and aerials) with new school skiing, which has freestyle roots. They also feel it will be good for national ski associations in promoting the sport to young skiers.

"We don’t want to own it or control it," says Robinson. "We do want to expand on it and see as many kids as possible jumping, spinning, grabbing and expressing the same spirit that spawned organized freestyle 30 years ago. It’s all ‘freestyle’ and there is no exclusive franchise on who runs events, in fact we believe the more the merrier."

And while Robinson acknowledges that FIS freestyle suffers from a lack of vision, the original goal was to make it successful as an Olympic sport. It’s difficult to be revolutionary within the FIS, which is a political body and slow to change, but Robinson feels the benefits of being part of an established international organization outweigh the hassles.

"We’re not really sure what the underlying issue is – I suspect it may be about control but not by the FIS. We applaud the innovation and spirit that has breathed new life into skiing in recent years and hope it continues," says Robinson. "We would never discourage any of the amazing things that are happening on skis, we simply want to give it another forum to gain exposure to skiers and fans around the world so that the sport continues to grow."

Szocs says he can understand the FIS’s position on new school skiing and sympathizes with their need to revolutionize freestyle, but questions the widom of having two tours.

"It’s tough to be supportive and help them with their events because we’ve been working hard on our own contests, like the U.S. Open, the Whistler Open, the X-Games, stuff like that," says Szocs. Most new school events are run by individual sponsors and not sanctioned by any governing body.

"The FIS were pretty understanding – I think they know that sports like freestyle are progressing too slowly, and that there is a lot of discontent within the whole snowboard scene."

While Szocs says he was relieved that the FIS doesn’t have any immediate plans to take over new school sports, he doesn’t think the issue of ownership is resolved just yet.

"They say they don’t want it to be a World Cup tour, and they don’t want it in the Olympics, and I think if they can stick to that it would be good because it would make the events they do put on even bigger. The problem is that their track record really doesn’t suggest they’re going to stick to anything," says Szocs.

"It’s all about the money. As soon as there is enough money in it, they’re going to want to do a tour, and once there’s a tour and the money’s even bigger, there’s a chance it could go to the Olympics. We don’t really want to go that route. We want freeskiers to be able to enter any event they want, make money from sponsors however they see fit, and to keep the creativity and progression in the sport. The moment you place restrictions on something like this, you ruin it."

There are two big air events at freestyle World Cup competitions this season. The first was at Blackcomb; the second will take place at Sunday River in Maine on Jan. 28. In addition, there are four big air events planned as part of the Canadian Freestyle Series, one at the National Freestyle Championships, and halfpipe and table-top events at the Junior Nationals.

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