America's gold standard: no price too high

Americans are great at sports the rest of the world can barely afford. Sure, it's not the most honorable, most satisfying or even the most cost-effective way to become a Winter Olympics superpower, but guess what? It works. And with an American T...

Americans are great at sports the rest of the world can barely afford.

Sure, it's not the most honorable, most satisfying or even the most cost-effective way to become a Winter Olympics superpower, but guess what?

It works.

And with an American TV network still picking up the lion's share of the Olympic tab and exerting just as much influence on the roster of sports included in the games, that isn't going to change anytime soon.

Through the close of play Monday, two of the four golds and four of the six medals claimed by Americans at these Olympics have been won by snowboarders.


"This," Gretchen Bleiler said moments after nailing down the silver half of another 1-2 U.S. medals punch in the halfpipe, "is absolutely unbelievable."

That just might hold up over the next two weeks as the overstatement of these Olympics. The only thing unbelievable about what happened in halfpipe Monday is that Norwegian Kjersti Buaas managed to wedge herself between all the other Americans -- Hannah Teter (gold), Kelly Clark (fourth) and Elena Hight (sixth) -- to steal the bronze.

Honestly now, who else did Bleiler think was going to win?

Paulina Ligocka of Poland, a country with one halfpipe venue, and a square one at that?

Svetlana Vinogradova of Russia, a country with two more halfpipes than Lenin's Tomb?


"Medaling at the Olympics," Bleiler added, "has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl."

Good thing that Bleiler wasn't born until 1981, since snowboarding didn't became part of the Winter Olympics until eight years ago at Nagano. Before becoming a shredder, Bleiler tried swimming, diving, soccer and then women's hockey, another one of those sports that has been the equivalent of an ATM machine for a U.S. team looking to cash in medals.


For all the fuss made over the best-ever U.S. effort at Salt Lake City four years ago, it's worth noting that nearly half of the haul -- 16 of 34 medals -- was in sports that cost a lot to play (think freestyle skiing) and weren't even part of the Olympic program as recently as 1988.

Sixteen nations were represented on the start list for halfpipe, which says more about the tenacity of an American entrepreneur named Jake Burton than it does about the quality of the competition worldwide. As a teenager in Vermont in the late 1960s, he figured there had to be a more entertaining way to get down a mountain than strapping on skis.

Burton didn't invent the snowboard. A rough version, essentially two skis strapped together, was around almost 100 years ago. When Burton started shredding, it was on something called a "Snurfer," a board with a rope attached to the front that surfers adopted to pass the time between days when it was too cold to ride waves.

Convinced he was on the verge of the next big thing, Burton moved into the barn on a farm in Vermont, hired some friends, looked after the livestock to pay the rent and started manufacturing 50 snowboards a day. He sold 300 the first year.

"Some genius I was," Burton laughed Monday, about two hours before the U.S. women and plenty of the other competitors zoomed down the halfpipe on boards with his name writ large on the tips.

Back then, few ski resorts in the U.S. allowed snowboarders on their slopes. First, they raised liability questions and then what Burton called "behavorial issues." Lift operators weren't crazy about long hair and baggy clothes, and they liked the attitude least of all. But grudgingly, once the people in charge figured out kids who accompanied their parents would spend more money on the slopes than on the video games in the arcade, they started to come around.

Burton's sales more than doubled every year for 15 straight years after that first one. His forays into Europe went nearly as well, and Japan and China are the latest frontier. As the number of skiers continues to drop steadily, the number of snowboarders has zoomed to the point where they make up one-third of all the visitors to a ski resort today. Almost overnight, as Burton likes to say, shredders went from being a threat to the saviors of the industry.

But worldwide popularity isn't the same thing as worldwide competitiveness.


As the gold and silver medalists enlightened and entertained a roomful of reporters with their take on American dominance -- "USA! Representing!" Bleiler called out at one point -- or their taste in music -- "Communicate" was the song Teter played on her iPod while shredding toward gold, "by a band you probably never heard of, called Strive Roots" -- one of their coaches counted up the number of first-rate halfpipe venues back in America. He stopped at 20.

The only halfpipe back in Poland, on the other hand, was constructed by a former engineer who quit his job to become that nation's coach and build it. His name is Wladyslaw Ligocki, and his daughter and nephews fill out the Polish squad.

Vinogradova, meanwhile, considers herself lucky to have grown up in Novosobirsk, Russia, where there was a halfpipe already built by the time her gymnastics coaches suggested that at age 15 she find another route to the Olympics.

"It is maybe half as long as this one," she said wearily, nodding in the direction of the Bardonecchia venue, "but better than none at all."

What To Read Next
Get Local