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In 1998 the festival had a breakthrough year, not from celebrating the next big thing in skiing or snowboarding, but with the addition of the visual and performing arts to the festival roster. The introduction of a free concert series and the first Pro Photographer Showdown widened the appeal beyond core ski bums and sparked a major increase in visits of the general public. The party to end all end-of-season parties was beginning to find its footing in Whistler.
The only other winter sports competitions that came close at the time were the Winter X-Games and the U.S. Open (which were scheduled quite close together), but neither of these events could match the fun that everyone was having in Whistler during those 10 days in April.
"WSSF quickly became a critical mass of industry and athletes all there at the same time, basically trying to outdo each other," said Anthony.
"It was more of a party atmosphere than any of these other events. It was very different because it was embedded in this event that had a depth and breadth to it that no other competitions did. That spoke a lot to what skiing was really all about, which is fun. To have a serious competition with the top athletes in the world embedded in this giant fun balloon every spring was important — it became this thing where business was transacted on the decks of the GLC in inflatable hot tubs and on a mechanical bull. As a magazine editor you would have an incredibly full schedule not only attending events, but meeting with people, because everyone was going to be there. If you couldn't catch up with someone during the season, it would be, 'see you at the WSSF.'"
Skiing's return to the Golden Age
As the artistic spectacle gained popularity, the sporting arm of the festival continued to develop. In 2000, the first World Ski Invitational (WSI) competition was held on Blackcomb with Big Air, halfpipe and skiercross events. The following year, skiercross was removed from the event roster and replaced with slopestyle, a move motioned by a change in sponsorship and an increasing demand by athletes for the new discipline. The superpipe event has long been regarded as the most popular daytime event during the festival, with plenty of game-changing tricks being busted out for the first time to the ecstatic reaction of the pipe-side crowd. The Big Hit contest, (where the skiers use the lower half of the pipe for one long run-in into one massive jump) has been where some the most impressive tricks of the entire festival have been thrown down.
"I remember (in 2002) Dave Chrichton doing the biggest alley-oop flatspin ever, and that was at a time when you didn't really see things like that," said Mike Douglas, professional skier and former WSI competitor. That one trick went down in freeskiing history as "shocking the ski world" by demonstrating just how huge skiers can launch out of a halfpipe.