Wait ... is this the Olympics, or the X Games? Since the 1980s, the International Olympic Committee has added sports designed to attract a younger, affluent crowd -- and it’s worked. As Sochi gears up to welcome Olympic visitors to the 2014 winter games, the committee is banking that the addition of slopestyle skiing and snowboarding events will continue to attract the coveted X-games niche audience. Organizers are also keeping their eyes on the less visible spectators worldwide.
“It’s not just about the moments we watch on TV,” said Janice Forsyth, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies in Canada. “It’s about selling all the commercial products attached to the sport. It’s about selling the lifestyle.”
Of the 12 new events this year, nine involve the premiere Winter X-games sports of snowboarding and (non-traditional) skiing.
“The Winter Olympics reached a point in the past 10-15 years where they just weren’t drawing an audience of anyone under about 50, and they needed to make these things more relevant,” said Eddie Pells, who will be reporting on the new events in Sochi for AP. “This latest move of adding slopestyle and halfpipe is their last gambit on this whole thing.”
While men’s ski jumping has been a component of the Games since the first Winter Olympics in 1924, women ski jumpers had to fight for their sport to be included in the Olympics, even filing a lawsuit in Canada in hopes of gaining admission to the 2010 Games. Finally, there was a consensus that the only reason for its exclusion amounted to discrimination, and, in 2011, the IOC announced women’s ski jumping would make its debut in the 2014 Games.
Athletes compete head-to-head on parallel courses designed to be more technical than giant slalom courses.
“Such events provide great entertainment for the spectators and add further youthful appeal to our already action-packed lineup of Olympic winter sports,” IOC President Jacques Rogge said in a statement at the time of the new additions.
The sport made its World Cup debut in 2012.
Imagine skiing at a skatepark, complete with rails and jumps.
"You make runs down tricked-up mountains with hills and rails," Pells said. "When halfpipe took off in 1998, (the organizers) said, ‘we want more of that,' so in 2006 they added snowboard-cross, and in 2010, they wanted a little more, so they added ski cross. For this one, they wanted even more, so they added slopestyle. "
Skiers are judged on execution, style, difficulty, variety and progression.
"It's where snowboarding is going next," Pells said.
Plus, it's a second event for snowboarding's biggest star, Shaun White, who won gold in the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics and became the first man to score a perfect 100 in the event at the 2012 Winter X Games.
"Every time you see me in the Olympics, it's been in the half-pipe, but the new event is called slopestyle," White said on the TODAY show. "It's basically a series of jumps in one run and some rail features you slide on, and you make your way down and you basically do as many tricks as you can on those jumps."
The inclusion of pro athletes, starting in the '80s, has provided huge financial benefits to the Olympics, because athletes are required to sign over the rights to their name and image during the games.
"To get an athlete like Shaun White is a major boon for the organizers," Forsyth said.
X-Games star freestyle skier Sarah Burke pushed to get this event included in the Olympics before she died after a crash during a training run on a halfpipe.
Burke, who was 29 when she died, would probably have been a contender for the gold. Instead, her death has renewed discussion about safety in the sport.
The motto of the Olympics is "higher, fast, stronger," Forsyth said. "There's an expectation for the athletes to be better every Olympics, to show there has been progress. No one would watch if these records were static."
That's a challenge in luge because of the inherent risk of hurtling down a steep, curvy track -- especially after a training crash at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics killed Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia. That track is known to be the fastest in the world -- Kumaritashvili was going almost 90 miles per hour when he crashed. Sochi organizers will have to balance breaking records with maintaining safety.
"People will want to see what will happen," Forsyth said.
Think of is as the gymnastics team event on ice.
Even classic winter Olympic sports get periodic updates. The IOC often asks the international federations of various sports to find "a way to keep a sport relevant and make it more interesting and different," Forsyth said. Tweaks like this one help the Olympics remain distinct from the World Figure Skating Championships, she said.
The teams will consist of six skaters: one male, one female, one pair and one ice-dance couple.
Two men and two women ski on each team, which could make it the most competitive event in biathlon. It's perhaps already the most coveted:
"Everyone on our team wants to be on the mixed relay," Marie Dorin Habert of France told Biathlon World.
Synnøve Solemdal of Norway agrees. "The mixed relay is really good, because there are maybe 10 or 15 teams that can be on the podium," she said. "Of course, I like it because we have some really fast boys in Norway!"