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Winter Olympics making shift to younger generation

USA's Lindsey Jacobellis takes the final jump in the "small final" in the women's snowboard cross final at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014.

SOCHI, Russia — At an International Olympic Committee briefing last week, the world's sports journalists witnessed an odd but revealing juxtaposition, one that not so long ago would have been impossible to imagine.

Sage Kotsenburg, the gold-medal-winning American snowboard dude in sweatsuit and knit cap, was sharing a podium with Christoffe Dubi, the suave, nattily dressed Swiss who is the IOC's director of sports.

The pairing was indicative of the wildly successful union of what once were polar-opposite institutions, the stodgy, European-dominated IOC and the rebellious, U.S. extreme-sport community.

As has been so evident during these 2014 Winter Olympics, the marriage has been beneficial to both. While the Olympics provide snowboarders and freestyle skiers with an international showcase, the new sports have added youthful vitality and millions of new TV viewers to Games that were growing stale.

"The Olympics are the highest level of competition you can get," said Gus Kenworthy, a silver medalist in slopestyle skiing. "Our sport is young and cool and has a following all its own. It's breathing new life into the Olympics. It's a cool dynamic."

The Winter Games as founder Baron de Coubertin conceived them and broadcast pioneer Roone Arledge presented them for so long have been changed dramatically and probably forever by the inclusion of these sports, beginning with freestyle skiing in 1992.

Loud rock music, an edgy venue announcer, rebellious attitudes — all are indicative of the changes. So too is a younger TV audience that once spurned the Games.

In the critical U.S. market, the most widely viewed segment of NBC's coverage of the 2010 Games in Vancouver was Shaun White's winning the half-pipe.

And so far in 2014, though they still have a week to run, the same is true at the Sochi Games. Twenty-four million Americans watched White finish fourth in the tape-delayed event Wednesday.

The youth movement couldn't have arrived at a better time. Figure skating, long the Winter Olympics' signature event and the sport that drove its TV ratings, has experienced a sharp decline.

Ever since the first Winter Games at Chamonix in 1924, when teenage Norwegian skater Sonja Henie burst into view, figure skating's female gold-medal winners have been the Olympics' most popular stars.

But for reasons that range from the sport's arcane scoring system to its often overly formal tone, that's no longer true.

In 1988, when Katarina Witt battled American Debi Thomas at Calgary, the women's free-skate finale attracted an astounding 46 rating. Four years ago in Vancouver, the same event scored a 13.6.

Meanwhile, for decades, the IOC resisted any major alterations to a winter-sports roster little changed from Chamonix. Sports such as snowboarding, with their rebellious image, weren't even on its radar.

"Snowboarding was looked at as the rebel sport," said White, the half-pipe gold medalist in its first two Olympic appearances. "It wasn't fit to be on the mountain. We were outcasts."

Finally, in a burst of revised thinking between 1992 and 2010, the IOC added short-track speedskating and such freestyle-skiing and snowboarding disciplines as moguls, aerials, slopestyle, and half-pipe.

The changes were so successful that here at Sochi there will be more days (15) with either freestyle skiing or snowboarding than with figure skating (11), even though team figure skating was added to try to kick-start that ailing sport.

"There definitely was a lot of skepticism at first," said Luke Bodensteiner, an executive vice president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and an early proponent of the new sports. "People always have concerns that by adding new sports you'll drain resources and participants from the existing ones."

Bodensteiner gave much of the credit for the IOC's awakening to Dubi, the 44-year-old son of an Olympic hockey player who, as the organization's director of sports, has pushed it in a new direction.

"Dubi is very progressive and open-minded," Bodensteiner said. "He wants to make sure the Olympics continues to resonate with and attract a young audience."

For his part, Dubi said he wasn't trying to injure or eliminate any existing sports by lobbying for the changes.

"We need to preserve our history. It's very important," he said. "At the same time, we have to remain relevant and make sure that we capture a new audience as well.

"I have one 11-year-old, and I can tell you he is following Sage and the others in our new events keenly, in front of the TV, but also consuming on the Internet."

No sport better typifies this new Winter Games than slopestyle. In all its forms — men's and women's, skiing and snowboarding — it's by far been the most discussed, and, for Americans at least, the most successful of the 12 first-time sports here.

Its venues were packed, its competitions were aired in prime time on NBC, and the United States won three gold and six overall medals in the discipline whose popularity at snow resorts had been exploding for a decade.

"I think the world needed to see slopestyle," said Kotsenburg, who won the snowboarding event. "Snowboarding is different from figure skating or gymnastics. This is what the kids are doing nowadays."

The international skiing community finally noticed that midway through the last decade. They saw slopestyle's growth and potential, and when the IOC convened to add or drop sports for 2014, its 300 members got a primer.

"They had little understanding of the sport," recalled Bodensteiner, "but we showed them how visually appealing it was and, maybe more importantly, how it could be picked up even in nations like Great Britain or Australia that don't have big mountains or big resorts. We made an impassioned speech. Hands went up. And the sport went in."

Like figure skating, slopestyle has its appealing artistic and acrobatic elements. But unlike that more traditional winter sport, it allows for tremendous creativity.

While skaters increasingly are bound by a scoring system that demands they perform a fixed set of elements, slopestylers are free to experiment.

And while figure skating's atmosphere often resembles that of classical music's, a slopestyle event, even at the Olympics, includes blaring music, a hip P.A. announcer, and lots of video screens.

"Younger audiences don't want to watch skater after skater after skater," Ashley Wagner, a U.S. Olympic figure skater, said earlier this year. "They want a light show, live music, images on a huge screen."

NBC's Olympics chief, Jim Bell, said the athletes were as significant as the events in the new sports' appeal.

"They're not some robotic athlete," Bell said. "They've got personality. They've got spark."

These sports also are often more egalitarian than, say, Alpine skiing, whose participants tend to be developed at expensive and exclusive resorts.

While Kenworthy discovered slopestyle at Telluride in Colorado and many of his teammates picked it up at the high-altitude havens of Park City and Aspen, there are Olympic freestylers and snowboarders from places like Western Pennsylvania and central Indiana, where there are no big resorts or lofty peaks.

"Nick Goepper is from Indiana," said Bodensteiner, a cross-country skier at the '92 and '94 Games. "There aren't any Alpine skiers from Indiana. That's the beauty of it. You don't have to learn on the steep slopes at Vail or Park City. You could get a mound of snow in your backyard."

With the success of these sports, there's talk about adding even more to the Olympic calendar. Most observers believe that big-air snowboarding — a cross between slopestyle and ski-jumping — could be next.

When Kotsenburg won his gold medal, the audience at the 10 a.m. event overflowed Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. Among the crowd were Dubi and several other IOC officials, hardly the typical demographic.

"We really had goose bumps," Dubi said of watching Kotsenburg soar. "I don't know how it was for you in the media, but for us, we thought it was the ultimate experience."

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com
 

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