Alex Rodriguez. LeBron James. Michael Phelps. Shaun White.
When you see these names, you do not see a person, yet envision the face of a sport. Can we predict or protect the soon-to-be poster child of freeskiing?
With success comes a newfound presence in front of an over-examining eye, attached to the critical mouth of the public. The public is the blessing and curse of the famed—the ones with the buying and selling power to promote the young guns to the top, as well as the ones who are quick to judge and can send it all crashing down.
Let’s go with the obvious specimen to analyze: Shaun White.
Was Shaun the one to invent snowboarding? No. But if you walk through Times Square and ask 100 people to name a winter sports athlete, let alone a snowboarder, they will mention Shaun’s infamous name. To the average person, Shaun is snowboarding. He is the definition of a snowboarder. Through the lens of Shaun, they have developed the idea that the snowboarder is the resident badass on the mountain. The rebellious teen with the untamed mane and the fearless attitude. The one dumb or daring enough to huck themselves like a ping pong ball against two man-made ice walls in hopes of defying gravity—all while spinning. Understanding what he does or why he does it is irrelevant. They know Shaun White is a snowboarder. They know Shaun White is an extreme winter athlete.
Being this face has it perks. The notoriety. The bookings. The invites. The sponsorships. The fans. But with the wins comes the losses. Every single action you are a part of has the potential to have a horrible reaction. While crowds are singing your praises when you’re up, the mobs are shitting on you when you’re down. Again, this makes Shaun the perfect example.
Throughout his podiums, clothing lines and pro models, there’s been the tirades, the rants and the moaning. There’s been the squabbles with fellow boarders and the drunken hotel mishaps.
Shaun was the one that for so long, so many people rooted for. But as many people have seen today, so many of those same people are discrediting him. Rather than focusing on the amazing performances he has had throughout his career, they capitalize on his shortcomings.
To which I wonder…
Who will become our love/hate athlete? While the inclusion of halfpipe and slopestyle will give our sport and athletes more exposure, there is no filter for what kind of opinions the public may form. The people that we will always see as the innovators, will not be the ones that the public remembers. The Olympics is the kind of platform that turns people from athletes to ambassadors of the sport. The public eye will not know that Glen Plake was the original badass. They will not know that the air off the last slopestyle booter, is trivial compared to the feats of Shane McConkey. They don’t know that we made this sport ourselves, from the ground up, before the FIS was involved. They don’t understand that skiers weren’t universally allowed in terrain parks for some time. They don’t know that we took our own niche from seed to sprout, and no matter how many times it got trampled on, we cultivated it.
Yet we can’t choose how it is interpreted. Will they notice Bobby Brown for his teenage heart throb looks or his unwavering triples? Can we trust they recognize Nick Goepper’s style and consistency in competition, or love him as an endearing P&G momma’s boy? Should we expect the public to acknowledge David Wise’ unquestionable skill or root for him as the wholesome family man? Will they understand that there is much more to Henrik Harlaut behind his big dreads and even bigger smile?
The new-found Olympic fans don’t know the history, but they will become self-described diehards. They won’t know the athletes outside of their NBC promo videos or Target commercials. They will see a face on a box of Pop-Tarts, but not realize the uniqueness of the skier soaring over the logo. They will develop their own opinions on our skiing family, making up their minds based on a few televised events. The information will be limited, but the fans and alliances will be solidified.
I fear for those who will be pushed to the top. The fans will start off as ill-informed, but is it our job to train them? Do we accept their excitement and infatuation with our obsession or do we shudder at what they could do to it. I wonder who will turn into our Shaun. Our Alex. Our LeBron. Our Michael. Who will be synonymous with freeskiing—with all of their good and bad qualities being assumed generalizations for the sport as a whole?
Can we stop it?
Does it matter?