Big air competitions have always been just as much spectacle as sport.
Instead of hours long competitions between individuals or a race against a clock, big air contests consist of one massive jump and trick by daredevils of all kinds on and off snow.
It is judges who determine the winners, and like most freestyle sports, the progression of difficulty is pushed by the innovation — and bravery — of athletes.
When the International Olympic Committee announced the inclusion of big air snowboarding as a medal event beginning at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, it culminated years of lobbying from organizations like the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, and it marked another step toward modernizing the Winter Games with new, youth-focused sports. Slopestyle snowboarding and skiing were added to the Winter Games in 2014 with great fanfare, and halfpipe skiing joined halfpipe snowboarding, which had been an Olympic sport since 1998.
With the countdown now on before the first Olympic big air snowboarding competition, here’s what you need to know.
How It Works
Snowboarders start atop a big snow ramp, and then perform big tricks off a big jump. Everything about it is big. At 49 meters tall, the ramp in PyeongChang is the biggest in the world. Its slope reaches 40 degrees at its steepest point. On the world cup circuit, there is a qualifying and final round. In the finals, each rider takes three jumps, with the top two scores counting.
What You Might See
What better place to get a preview of the Olympic big air competition than at the big air test event in November in PyeongChang? If the event, which was also a world cup, is any indication, the sport will be every bit as thrilling as IOC officials hope. Canadian Mark McMorris landed a frontside triple cork 1440 to win the men’s competition. What’s that, you ask? It’s a trick in which the rider goes off the jump and does four full rotations as well as three off-axis dips. Team USA’s Ryan Stassel, a 2014 Olympian in slopestyle snowboarding, finished third, while the U.S. put three women in the top five, led by Julia Marino in second.
Where Are The Skiers?
Big air snowboarding was added to the Olympic program, but not big air skiing. The IOC didn’t issue an official statement on why skiing wasn’t included, but most industry experts and athletes believe its because snowboarding has a more established history on the FIS World Cup circuit and world championships, with the sport first being contested at worlds in 2003, and they are hopeful skiing will be added to the program in 2022 in Beijing.
That said, big air athletes won’t add to total athlete numbers, as big and and slopestyle will count as one event when it comes to country quota spots.
Keep in mind that halfpipe snowboarding was included before skiing, so it may just be in keeping with the IOC’s comfort level with taking non-traditional competitions and bringing them into the very traditional universe of Olympic sports.
Who Are The Americans To Watch?
The reigning slopestyle world champion is Team USA’s Ryan Stassel, and he recently finished third in the big air test event in PyeongChang. He’s currently No. 2 in the international big air standings.
Some of the other U.S. men to watch as the world prepares for the 2018 Winter Games are Colorado’s Chris Corning, a 17-year-old slopestyle snowboarder who has nearly a dozen top-10 finishes in the last year, including four wins and a fifth-place finish at a big air world cup earlier this month in Milan, Italy; and Red Gerard, also from Colorado, who is just 15 years old, and finished 10th in the test event.
There are also snowboarders like Chas Guldemond, Eric Willett and Brock Crouch capable of competing with the world’s best.
On the women’s side, Vermont native Ty Walker — a 2014 Olympian in slopestyle at the young age of 16 — won the first women’s big air world cup ever held in December 2014. Meanwhile, 2016 Youth Olympian Hailey Langland is currently No. 2 in the world after finishing second at the Milan world cup, while fellow American Julia Marino is No. 3. Jessika Jenson, also a 2014 Olympian in slopestyle, is seventh in the standings.
Jamie Anderson, the 2014 slopestyle gold medalist and the most decorated slopestyle snowboarder in U.S. history, is No. 10 in the standings.