Field of Play: In praise of the Winter Olympic acrobats | Sports | CBC Sports CBC Sports - Sochi 2014

OlympicsField of Play: In praise of the Winter Olympic acrobats

Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013 | 03:33 PM

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Canada's Mikael Kingsbury, 20, is the newly crowned world champion in men's freestyle moguls. (Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press) Canada's Mikael Kingsbury, 20, is the newly crowned world champion in men's freestyle moguls. (Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press)

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Freestyle skiing. The very name suggests there's something more being measured in this sport than distance and time. There's an eye-catching appeal to it. It is a competition, yes, but it is also a spectacle.
Freestyle skiing. The very name suggests there's something more being measured in this sport than distance and time. Something far less tangible.

There's an eye-catching appeal to it. It is a competition, yes. But it is also, at least partly, a spectacle.

Increasingly, on the Winter Olympic landscape, the freestyle skiing disciplines are gaining status and they are achieving it in spite of the fact they include a subjective or judged component in their DNA. 

"The Games are about competition, pure and simple," says Peter Judge, the CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association. "Some forms of competition are measured in seconds, some in feet and inches, and some are measured through defined aesthetics and more subjective evaluation methods."

Freestyle wasn't even recognized as a sport by FIS (the International Ski Federation) until 1979, and the first world championships weren't staged until 1986 in Tignes, France.

The sport was thought by many to be far too dangerous for Olympic inclusion, and because it encompassed an endeavour laced with risk and trickery, its detractors kept it off the program, claiming it wasn't a quantifiable sport.

The Games finally embraced moguls in 1992 at Albertville after three disciplines -- moguls, aerials and ski ballet -- had been demonstration events at the Calgary Olympics in 1988. In 1994 at Lillehammer the aerialists got their long-awaited chance to amaze with their acrobatic feats.

Now skicross, slopestyle and halfpipe have vaulted onto the Olympic stage, and in each case Canadians have played a pioneering and leadership role in the growth of the sport.

"It was both inspiring and exciting to know that I was a member of a team where so many great champions had set a high performance standard before me," says Jennifer Heil, who won moguls gold and silver at the Torino and Vancouver Olympics, respectively.

Growing sport

Once an X-Games curiosity for "hot doggers" and "daredevils," freestyle has become a Winter Olympic mainstay, and it has massive appeal. The forerunners -- like members of "The Quebec Air Force" led by Philipe Laroche, Jean Marc Rozon and Nicolas Fontaine -- dazzled for decades. Moguls skiers like Jean-Luc Brassard, Heil and Alexandre Bilodeau have built on the mystique. Canada has won nine freestyle medals in Olympic competition, second only to the United States.

"Once you have knowledge of, and are at the leading edge of, something it is easier to stay in front," says Judge. "But winning is not so as to be better than the others, it is to be the one to get there and show others that it can be done. They all want those around them to share in the learning and experience, for them to grow and get there too."

The bottom line is that freestyle is still growing. Its folklore is constantly evolving and Canadians are at the very centre of the picture.

At the current world championships in Norway, Travis Gerrits won aerials silver. Justine Dufour-Lapointe captured moguls bronze, while the Canadian moguls men were at the top of the heap, including the 2010 Olympic champion Bilodeau with a silver medal.

"These people are all of my idols," gushed Mikael Kingsbury, the 20-year-old who put an exclamation mark on a wonderful season by taking the men's moguls gold medal in Norway, one spot ahead of Bilodeau. "They are all legends and I am not yet one," he chuckled.

Much of the credit for the ever-increasing popularity of freestyle skiing in Canada has to go to Judge, who's been at the high-performance forefront of the sport internationally for 35 years or more. He was head coach of the national team during the glory days from 1985-97 and has been its driving force ever since.

"Since taking the lead in Canada he has brought a culture of excellence to the Canadian program," says Jenn Heil. "At the same time he has created sustainability by continuing to develop the grassroots programs."


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Not without risk

Freestyle skiing is athletic but it's also aesthetic. It's winter Olympic performance art, which is a good thing, especially if you're a Canadian, considering the illustrious story of success that continues to unfold as the various disciplines develop.

"There is the embedding of the sport in our cultural heritage," says Judge. "This is significant particularly with respect to things like drawing athletes into the sport."

Freestyle is not without its risks or dangers. In the past year or so, Sarah Burke and Nik Zoricic have died while pursuing their craft and pushing the boundaries.

But on this field of play we can also understand that acrobats are achievers and that freestyle is about raising the bar and discovering what is possible.

Freestyle skiing is proof positive that sport is about substance, but it is also about style.

Sports Weekend preview

This Sports Weekend is a busy one. On  Saturday at 3 p.m. ET we'll begin the day with a men's giant slalom from Kranska Gora, Slovenia.  An hour later it's the short track speed skating world championships from Hungary.

At 5 p.m. ET the world freestyle ski championships unfold from Voss, Norway, and Canadians are contenders in every discipline.

Sunday at 2 p.m. local time there's more speed skating as well as ski cross, featuring play-by-play with Brenda Irving and analysis by Olympic gold medallist Ashleigh McIvor.

Scott Russell is the host of CBC's Sports Weekend. Follow him on Twitter @SportsWkndScott and @TheFieldofPlay.

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