Winter X Games or world championships? Conflict forces athletes to choose...
Janill Gilbert stashed this in Winter Sports
Kyle Smaine from the U.S. competes to win the men's freestyle ski half pipe event at the Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championships in Kreischberg, Austria, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015.
ASPEN — David Wise battles gravity as an Olympic and X Games gold medal halfpipe skier. Now he's battling an equally stubborn force: the International Ski Federation, or FIS.
Widely embraced as the world's best pipe skier, Wise lost his world champion title last week when he, like most of the world's top freeskiers and snowboarders, opted to attend Aspen's Winter X Games instead of the FIS world championships in Austria.
The 24-year-old Wise blasted the international federation for refusing to reschedule the world championship halfpipe contest — which was put on the calendar five years ago — to accommodate the athletes whose careers have flourished thanks to the X Games.
The scheduling conflict is a symptom of a larger issue, freeskiers say. There's a perceived lack of respect for freeskiing and snowboarding from the sports' governing body. The fear is that new school freeskiing could see its freewheeling style stifled by the decidedly old guard FIS.
Wise, who spent three years pleading with the FIS to adjust the schedule, wrote in a scathing post on his blog last week that it is an "unforgivable blunder; one based in arrogance and in a true lack of respect." Dozens of the top-ranked skiers and snowboarders on the World Cup halfpipe and slopestyle circuit did not show up at Kreischburg, Austria, last week.
An accidental revolutionary, Wise is vying for his fourth consecutive X Games gold Sunday. Back at the base of Buttermilk Mountain, Wise said his fellow skiers "made a stand" by choosing Aspen.
"Essentially the athlete field here at the X Games is boycotting the world championships because this is what matters most to us," Wise said at the start of the X Games. "I can honestly say that our sport is where it is today because of the X Games. Nobody would even know what ski halfpipe was if it wasn't for X Games."
Only one athlete — Australian skier Russ Henshaw — declined an X Games invitation for the world championships.
With most of the top skiers not in Austria, opportunities grew for athletes ranked down the leaderboard to claim world titles. Lake Tahoe, Calif., halfpipe skier Kyle Smaine, for example, climbed from his 12th place World Cup ranking to win the world championship Thursday in a competition that did not include the top 11-ranked skiers.
Those at the X Games said it was not a tough decision to pick Aspen over Austria. Joss Christensen, who led the American sweep in slopestyle skiing's Olympic debut last winter in Russia, was confident in his decision to be in Colorado.
"I've always wanted to go to the world champs, but the X Games is the biggest event in freeskiing," Christensen said. "It's what made our sport what it is."
The dream as a young freeskier, Swedish Olympian Henrik Harlaut said, is X Games glory: "I never dreamed to go to world champs. I am following my dreams."
When FIS set the world championship schedule in 2010 for Austria, there were no slopestyle, ski halfpipe or big air competitions in the biennial program.
But the world championships expanded into a conglomeration of FIS disciplines, growing to include 24 freestyle skiing, freeskiing and snowboarding events, including the recently Olympic ski and snowboard slopestyle. Last week's worlds hosted 800 athletes over a crammed, 10-day schedule.
"Seeing the overlap with the X Games, FIS then did everything in its power to create a schedule that would force as few athletes as possible to have to choose between the two competitions," FIS spokeswoman Jenny Wiedeke said. "It is a massive scheduling matrix."
Since it added ski and snowboard slopestyle and ski halfpipe events three years ago, athletes have been lobbying FIS to tweak the schedule. Or at least shift competition days to allow athletes to catch overnight flights linking Austria to Aspen so they can compete in both contests.
"We were totally ignored. I never heard anything from them," Wise said. "It definitely concerns us that they refused to listen to us as a unified voice."
He says there has to be mutual respect or he thinks "some major changes are going to happen."
"The best way for the federation to work this out is for them to listen to us," Wise said. "They are totally able to do that. We've done that in the past, and we got our sports into the Olympics."
Breckenridge skiing legend Steele Spence judged the world championship halfpipe and slopestyle contests last week in Austria and made it to Aspen on Saturday to watch the X Games events.
He said the world championship slopestyle contest was strong, and added the slopestyle talent pool remains very deep well beyond the 16th ranked skier.
"Slopestyle was at a super high level, but not as high as the X Games, of course," he said.
The pool in the ski halfpipe is less deep, Spence said, so the world championship halfpipe "really was a pretty mediocre comp."
Noah Wallace won slopestyle bronze in Austria last week in a competition that saw high-level tricks despite the absence of the top 16 skiers. Still, the 23-year-old from Washington missed the world's best.
"I feel like with so many people's absence this year, the results get an asterisk next to them in the record books," Wallace said.
Future may be better
The 2017 FIS world championships are tentatively scheduled for mid-March in Spain. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association will host the 2019 world championships in Park City, Utah.
The U.S. gets just one vote when it comes to the democratic FIS decision-making process. The team's leaders spent last year trying to work with the FIS to tweak the world championship schedule to allow athletes to compete in Aspen and Austria.
"We didn't win the battle," said Michael Jaquet, chief marketing officer for the USSA, which sent its team of coaches and techs to support athletes at the X Games. "We have always embraced the X Games. We treat this as a very important competition."
But don't think the FIS refused to adjust its schedule as part of some power trip, Jaquet said.
"There was nobody at FIS who thought the top athletes would skip the X Games to go to the world championships," he said. "They felt they had to move forward with the dates that they had for a hundred different reasons."
The day the U.S. won the 2019 world championships, team leaders hammered out schedule options that did not conflict with the X Games, which always falls on the weekend before the Super Bowl, or Park City's bustling Sundance Film Festival in late January.
"This was a mistake. This was a bummer," Jaquet said of the scheduling issues. "This absolutely took us a little back with the relationship between the athletes and the FIS, but the American contingent has put a flag in the sand for 2019."
Stashed in: X Games!