Taking FIS to Task

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athlete: Mikael Kingsbury * photo: Mike Ridewood

by tobias c. van Veen from the Fall 2011 issue.

The first and only time I saw Jean-Luc Brassard in competition was at the closing finale of the 2002 World Cup Freestyle on Blackcomb. As I feasted on the media tent’s prawns and wine, the Lillehammer legend laid down a cartilage-destroying performance. Sure, he was no longer on top, but he was going out in style. But where were the up-and-coming Canadians?

By 2002 the International Ski Federation (FIS) that governs both alpine and freestyle skiing had already been tarred-and-eathered by the exodus of what were Brassard’s protégés. The New Canadian Air Force had already split, stifled by rules that hindered creativity and banned inverted tricks.

Plastering “FIS SUCKS” stickers on their gear, the ex-Air Force of JP Auclair, Mike Douglas, JF Cusson and Vincent Dorion, as well as Julien Regnier and the “Three Phils ”—Larose, Belanger and Dion —went on to invent the new-school arsenal of freeskiing styles. Douglas gave birth to the Salomon 1080 twintip, Auclair the Pocket Rocket, and the rest, they say, is history.

A great philosopher once said something to the effect that history repeats itself. His infamous protégé added “first as tragedy, second as farce.” So it’s understandable that a little over a decade later, there’s some trepidation in the freeskiing world over the inclusion of its two crown jewels into FIS—the rebelliously creative and fiercely competitive halfpipe and slopestyle. Both are destined to make some kind of history as “action sports” at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Yet, not only is there some concern that the very reasons for ditching FIS are being ignored, but that this has already happened —in the 1970s.

The irony is that, like Hollywood, this isn’t just a repeat, but a reboot of the FIS franchise. Both aerials and moguls came out of late 1960s hotdoggin’, which the FIS sanctioned as the Freestyle World Tour in 1980.  Originally, inverts were game. But after a series of injuries, they were banned —until recently, that is, as pressure from today’s freeskiers forced FIS to face the facts: evolve or die.

“I kind of have mixed feelings,” says Mike Douglas, freeskiing guru, braintrust behind
the FIS SUCKS campaign and Advisory Board member to the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AAFP), the organization behind freeskiing’s competitive ranking system.
“When freeskiing and new-school freestyle was in its infancy, we were very protectionist about it. We knew that if FIS had stepped in at the time, it really would’ve changed the sport and the way it developed. We really didn’t want to go down that road. A lot of things happened there with FIS that were not good at the time. That said, that road has been travelled and we ’re past it. FIS has been forced to change their ways and is much less of a dictator.”

Needless to say, there’s been some heat over whether FIS has learnt its lesson. Pioneering freeskier Anthony Boronowski went on the record as saying that the main reason the Olympic cartel wants these new “action sports” is for the money. Just-as- respected rider and prolific blogger John Symms countered that it’s already all about the money —just look at the hyper- televised X-Games and the Dew Tour. As Symms says, at least with national support, riders can concentrate on riding and not on working the backroom biz of sponsorship and media deals. Douglas basically agrees, noting that competitors already treat the AFP events “seriously.”

So far, the response from potential Olympians has been positive, especially from riders who were still watching Teletubbies when the Air Force decided to go their own way back in the late ’90s. They’re stoked to be able to go to Sochi. And so they should be.

Yet just as this summer drew to a close, FIS imposed new equipment rules on ts alpine sports that have infuriated both racers and manufacturers. In a debatable move to make racing safer, for the 2012-113 World Cup season, longer skis with a larger turning radius have been mandated. Men’s GS skis will see an increase from 10 m, with the existing 27-meter radius increased to 40. In short, the long, straight skinnies are back; esthetic speed carving is over, scraping and sliding are in. This has many of the world’s top alpine racers— including Bode Miller and Ted Ligety— publicly denouncing FIS, arguing that the federation is turning back the clock on racing style. Miller has gone so far as to denounce FIS regulation of equipment entirely. Apparently the idea is to make racing “safer ” by reducing carving speed—a claim that Canadian Alpine Ski Team member Dustin Cook says has not been proven since FIS has refused to release the data from its six-year study. Nor, apparently, were athletes consulted on changes rushed through FIS Council. Sound familiar?

Even as the Ski Racing Suppliers association forced a compromise from FIS on the increased radius (though not the length) at the end of August, racers still see FIS as increasingly out of touch with its core alpine culture. If safety is key, many racers question the logic behind the changes. Shorter skis with shorter radii respond much faster to changes in direction, even if they are a tad less stable. Do we want race culture returning to the hard scraping style of the 1990s, style that skiing abandoned for good reason, since it’s just not as fun ? Why is FIS dragging racing back to a pre-freeride era in equipment just as it welcomes freeride competition into the fold?

Now think of slopestyle, which is a terrain park of rails, bumps and features. In FP events, the shape and size of features are constantly being reinvented to push competitors and their skills. Without a standardized course, is this “safe”? Or let’s take halfpipe, where competitors are boosting high enough to warrant miniature parachutes. Will freestyle skis, with their constant innovation from twintips to rocker and zero camber, also see an FIS-mandated regression to 1990s-era specifications in order to limit airtime?

“All of the creativity and progression of the sport comes from having different and ever-changing courses at each competition,” says Mike Douglas, still hopeful. I can’t imagine that FIS is so stupid that they could create standardized slopestyle course. It would be the beginning of the end if they do. I’m an optimist. I’d like to think that there’s enough foresight in the organization that they won’t blow it that badly.”

Douglas is indeed seeing the sunny side, noting that there’s been “willingness in the stakeholders to get this right the first time.” This may be true, but FIS has certainly been stupid enough to potentially undermine the evolution of alpine racing. Its very future could be at stake if junior racers see the sport as increasingly out-of-touch with freeriding.

Douglas likens FIS to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Many weren’t that gung-ho about it to begin with, but once the carnival rolled into town, everyone made the best of it. If you can’t beat em, join ’em—but also own ’em. Let’s hope the AFP has its race face on when shaking hands with the big bear in the room.

tobias c. van Veen
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