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Jean-Claude Killy, like everyone else at the Turin
Winter Olympics, was drawn to the snowboard events
that pitted racers against each other in knockout
tournaments.

“I really enjoyed the parallel giant slalom,” Killy says. “It keeps you interested
for quite a bit of time, two
or three hours. You could see it building slowly to
a crescendo.”

What he thinks matters. Killy, one of the greatest skiers in history, won three gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble. He is also a member of the International Olympic Committee, sport’s most powerful club. Now the games are over, the IOC has to continue to assess the place in the Olympics of snowboarding and other
relatively new events such
as freestyle skiing’s moguls and aerials.

It will do so knowing that the Winter Olympics is in some senses neither here
nor there. It is already too big to be hosted in most mountain resorts but looks too small, white and western when compared with the summer games.

Meanwhile, its attempts to interest a new generation could risk alienating winter sports purists and imperil its image. When snowboarding was introduced in 1998, one gold medallist tested positive for marijuana, which is about as far away from a performance-enhancing drug as one could find.

Questions about the image of snowboarders were raised again this time. Lindsey Jacobellis, a US snowboard cross competitor, provided one of the games’ most memorable incidents by throwing away her gold medal doing an unnecessary stunt jump. She was in the clear at the end of the final but stumbled and allowed someone else to win gold.

Killy defends Jacobellis, who said she wanted to share her enthusiasm with the crowd. “She was very excited and it could happen in any sport. If I’d been there, 17 years of age [Jacobellis is 20], I’m not certain I would not have tried something stupid like that.”

These are not just questions of aesthetics and attitude. The Olympic movement has to remain relevant to a younger audience because it needs businesses as sponsors and broadcasters with open wallets. The broadcasters are dependent on their ability to attract advertising. Television rights deals and sponsorship provide almost all the games’ funding.

NBC, the US network whose 3,000 staff in Turin outnumbered the athletes, will be pondering the disappointing audience it received in return for paying more than $600m for the broadcast rights. It drew an average 12.2 per cent of prime-time viewers in the 110m US households with televisions, 37 per cent less than for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, according to Nielsen Media Research. The previous prime-time low
was a 13.4 rating for the 1968 Grenoble games.

The time difference did not help but the network will note that an online poll on its website showed snowboarding ranked as the second most popular sport after figure skating.

The IOC reviews and amends its programme after each Olympics. There are basic inclusion criteria, a sport for the winter games must, for example, be practised in at least 20 countries on three continents. And Killy says it looks at television ratings and marketing. It checks sponsor and athlete satisfaction.

What might be expected from future Winter Olympics? Killy says the organisers have to be satisfied that a sport is not just a passing fad. “When snowboarding came in, it was typically the fastest way to learn to go down a snow-covered hill. I realised it was going [to last]. It was not like monoskiing.”

Sports must also involve a standard of technical excellence. “I was watching the purity of the turns and the track the board left in the snow,” Killy says of parallel giant slalom. “I was really impressed. I believe it has its place in the Olympics because it has brought something technically to the sport.”

Killy is not too bothered about the winter games being too exclusive. He prefers to see the Olympics as a combined package of the summer and winter events and admits that there is limited opportunity for adding sports to the winter version.We couldn’t take basketball although it would be tempting.”

But new events within each sport are not just confined to untapped areas of snowboarding. In Turin, a sprint was added to the cross-country skiing events – “It’s so exciting to watch and no one was cheated in terms of the quality of the sport” – as was a long, mass-start event that capitalised on the desire to watch races in which the clock is irrelevant.

There is also a trend away from sports that involve subjective judgments of performance. Figure skating’s rigorous new scoring system, introduced after the scandals at the Salt Lake City games, was clearly a success. It is more mathematical and takes much of the controversy away. The vastly increased number of falls on the ice was evidence that skaters were pushing themselves to greater performances.

The future, then, might not be all snowboarding, which is just as well according to Bob Klein, a sports agent at Octagon who represents Seth Wescott, winner of the men’s snowboard cross.

Klein says snowboard cross athletes have trouble making any money, as the sport’s filmmakers and magazine editors remain interested mostly in boarders doing fancy stunts in exotic places. “There’s an internal struggle that at least every US snowboarder has,” Klein says. “What is snowboarding? Is it competition? Or image?”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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