• U.S.

Nagano 1998: Snowboarding: Rebel Revels

6 minute read
Jeff Galbraith

Under dark, wet snowfall deep in Washington State’s North Cascades, Terje Haakonsen charges his snowboard across the finish line to victory at the Mount Baker Banked Slalom. Through the evergreen mists, he carves to a stop past a small group of racers, officials and assorted stragglers. Within inner circles, Haakonsen, 23, is considered the Michael Jordan of snowboarding, and Mount Baker possibly the sport’s most respected event. But when Haakonsen finishes, there are no corporate sponsorships, no teams, no coaches, no flags, no network TV. A few ragged kids in wet gear cheer the best rider in the world as he slips off, back to the chair lift. The Norwegian packs up his third Mount Baker trophy (a golden roll of duct tape) and prepares to head up to Vancouver, B.C., to consult on a snowboard video game. And then probably home to Oslo, or Jackson Hole, Wyo., or maybe back to Mount Baker. But not to Japan and the first snowboarding events in Olympic history. Haakonsen is boycotting Nagano.

The would-be Olympians are a few hundred miles south, in the volcanoes of central Oregon, where the second of three qualifying events is taking place. The Mount Bachelor ski area is packed with truckloads of sound equipment, brimming with $10,000 purses and populated by whole contingents of coaches. For the halfpipe, snowboarding’s freestyle discipline and Haakonsen’s main event, Todd Richards launches and spins his way past fellow American Ross Powers toward a victory. Richards, who defeated Haakonsen at last year’s U.S. Open in Stratton, Vt., was expected to challenge Haakonsen for the gold in Nagano. Their rivalry will remain non-Olympian and will certainly not pit the U.S. against Norway.

In fact, Haakonsen cites nationalism as a reason for giving the Olympics the same salute he has thrown journalists, contest officials and all who encroach on snowboarding’s outsider ethos. The young antihero dislikes the formatted judging system and just about everything ordained by the Olympics and is suspicious of its structure and its ability to deal with his evolving sport. Mount Baker, with its loose nature, he says, “is a way more organized and professional contest.”

Haakonsen also does not like the way the Olympic snowboarders are being turned into uniform-wearing team members. Like tennis and golf, snowboarding has functioned with independently contracted athletes enjoying, in some cases, six-figure contracts. At competitions, snowboarders are usually adorned with various sponsors’ logos. Within the Olympic system, competitors must wear officially sanctioned uniforms provided by a contracted supplier. Mark Fawcett, Canada’s dominant giant-slalom racer, who draws a good portion of his income from Fila, must suspend that contract to advertise Nike, official sponsor of the Canadian team. At one point, Fawcett was so frustrated by the rule that he tried to join the New Zealand team. In the end, he decided to go Canadian anyway.

The sponsorship issue is just one battle in an ongoing war between snowboarding’s two governing bodies, the I.S.F. (International Snowboard Federation) and the F.I.S. (Federation Internationale du Ski). The International Olympic Committee’s 1996 decision to award Olympic-qualifying status to the F.I.S., organizer of skiing’s World Cup circuit, nearly sparked violence at some European events. Says Fawcett: “The F.I.S. didn’t want anything to do with us until they realized it was going to be an Olympic event and that there would be [TV] network interest and a great deal of money.” Other riders felt the F.I.S. had little understanding of snowboarding’s anti-Establishment culture. The scuttlebutt too was that the F.I.S. circuit is second rate.

Skirmishes aside, 55 snowboarders from 15 countries will be stepping off the bullet train in Nagano and catching air before an estimated 10,000 spectators. Riders will be competing in one of two snowboarding disciplines: the halfpipe and the Alpine race, the giant slalom. The halfpipe confrontation will take place in a semicylindrical course (394 ft. long and 12 ft. deep) in which riders perform like skateboarders, executing flips and rotations before a panel of judges. The giant slalom in Nagano will involve threading through gates along a 3,100-ft. run down the mountain.

One of the must-see rivalries will pit Richards, 28, against Powers, 18, who is an F.I.S. halfpipe prodigy and has already done much to pump up the competitiveness of the F.I.S. circuit. The outgoing Richards, though he had some difficulty in the first Grand Prix event, came on to win the second stop at Mount Bachelor with a fluid technical style rooted in his first passion, skateboarding. Powers, one of the more disciplined and reserved riders on the tour, has exploded into the top rankings this winter with several convincing wins. Even without Haakonsen, the U.S. will have its hands full holding off another Norwegian in the halfpipe, Daniel Franck. With a crowd-pleasing style and powerful amplitude, Franck could break his string of runner-up finishes to add to his country’s cache of gold.

Michelle Taggart, 27, looks to be the best American women’s halfpipe artist. A veteran and four-time World Champion, Taggart has made an impressive comeback run this season, including wins at both Mount Bachelor and ESPN’s alterna-event, the X-Games, to become the first freestylist named to the squad. A resident of Salem, Ore., Taggart is one of the few active riders to have won both racing and freestyle titles, though she now focuses her efforts solely on the halfpipe. One of the sport’s true female pioneers, Taggart has triple the contest experience of her competitors and is only getting better as the Games draw near.

In the men’s giant slalom, Chris Klug, 25, won his hometown Mount Bachelor event and picked up a rare win over Canada’s Fawcett to secure a spot on the U.S. team. Klug, a former high school All-Star quarterback, has the brightest chance for a win over the Canadians. Europeans, who have long dominated the Alpine events, still could sweep the giant slalom. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the podium was one-two-three for Austria,” says Fawcett. On the women’s race course, Lisa Kosglow, 24, of Boise, Ind., overcame a rough early-season start to win the Mount Bachelor giant slalom and rise to medal contention. Her competition may come in the form of Rosey Fletcher, 22, of Girdwood, Alaska, whose pre-Olympic results earned her the first berth on the U.S. women’s racing contingent.

And what of the man who may be the world’s best freestylist? In the warm confines of Mount Baker’s lodge, Terje Haakonsen steps onto a makeshift podium as the Golden Duct Tape is hung around his neck to the cheers of a couple hundred soaking patrons. A crackling stereo plays the Norwegian national anthem. Haakonsen grasps his plastic bag of award loot–gift certificates, lift tickets, stickers and assorted boarding goodies–and hurls it into the writhing mass of teenagers. It isn’t Olympic, but it is the golden moment he feels snowboarding is all about.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com