Culture in Snowboarding By John Boyle

wHat is snowboarding?

Its more than just riding down a slope on a board. Snowboarding is cultural and spiritual experience.

60 years ago, no one had ever heard of snowboarding. Now it can be see all over TV, integrated with pop culture (E.g. The X Games, Air and Style, etc). Snowboarding has rapidly risen to being one of the most popular sports in the world. According to TIME Magazine, during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeonChang, snowboarding was the most viewed set of events in many western countries including the United Kingdom, Iceland, and Australia. And that’s not to say snowboarding is not popular here in America too. On the contrary, in the year 2016, 5.3 million Americans went snowboarding. Furthermore, the snowboard equipment sales industry has consistently been worth over $400 million per year since 2006. Clearly, snowboarding is popular, and if you talk to anyone who’s passionate about the sport, it is easy to see why. Snowboarding is the perfect way to enjoy oneself on a Winter’s day. However, the rapid rise in popularity leads one to the questions. What is “snowboarding”? Is it simply just a sport, or is there more there? Upon close examination of its history, one realizes that snowboarding is more than an athletic experience, it is also cultural experience that has historically been a medium for counter-cultures, and moreover as it has gained mainstream popularity, snowboarding has retained its ability to allow people to freely express themselves. It is for these reasons that snowboarding has become so explosively popular.

Humble beginnings

In 1965 a father named Sherman Poppen attached two skis together for his daughters to ride on, his wife dubbed the invention the "Snurfer". This simple invention is regarded as the first modern snowboard. One year later, Poppen licensed the idea to the Brunswick corporation who sold over a million units in the following decade. Although primitive, and somewhat comical looking in hindsight the snurfer is a vital piece of snowboarding history.

Snurfing Competitions

Jake Burton Carpenter andTom Sims

In the 1970s snurfing competitions helped propel snowboarding into the spotlight. New technology like bindings were invented by amateur riders. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the snurfing competitions was creating the Jake Burton Carpenter vs Tom Sims rivalry. Jake was the level-headed businessman who would legitimize the sport. Sims on the other hand was wild and would transform the sport from being primarily racing based to primarily free-style based.

Clash with skiing

Even today skiers and snowboarders still clash. There's no way around it, skiers suck! Snowboarding rules!!

In the early 1980s despite its increasing popularity, snowboarding encountered a new obstacle. This obstacle was the establishment of skiing. To understand why skiing and snowboarding would be at odds with each other it is important to consider skiing culture during the time period. Today, skiing is a middle-class pastime for the masses. Sure, skiing is not cheap compared to other leisure activities, but it is accessible for many. Historically however, this was not the case. Skiing was a sport for the upper class in America during the three decades following World War II. This was due to the fact that in the birthplace of skiing, Europe, it was a sport only for the elites who could afford to vacation to the Alps. When the skiing came across the Atlantic it arrived with its pre-established “hoity-toity” culture. Thus, the average skier in the early 1980s was a wealthy and conservative person with little tolerance for anyone breaking established norms. Contrast that persona with average snowboarder of the early 1980s. The average snowboarder is young, wild, not wealthy, and holds anti-establishment sentiment. That young snowboarder probably also likes to drink excessively, smoke marijuana, and in general engage in delinquent behavior. This early anti-establishment culture would be crucial to the development of the sport. It helped making snowboarding cool and edgy and that drew other young kids looking for an outlet to the sport. Furthermore, the fact that the sport was pioneered by young wild kids set the tone for snowboarding culture in the future. Snowboarding would go on to provide a home for other counter cultural movements such as punk in the 1980s and street/hip-hop culture in the 1990s.

The Punk movement enters snowboarding

The punk movement is hard to describe in brief because it really encompasses a lot of different ideologies, for example some punks hold far left political views, while others hold far right. Thus, there are many subcultures in the counter culture of being punk. However, for a simple working definition of what it is to be punk there are many common viewpoints held basically unanimously throughout the punk counter-culture. These views include things like anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, and self-reliance. Punk culture and snowboarding coincided well with each other because both give people a means to freely express themselves. Punk culture expressed itself through snowboarding by changing popular snowboarding fashion and riding style. The easiest way to illustrate how punk culture was prevalent in 1980s snowboarding it is best to examine the most popular pro of the time, Shaun Palmer. No one better embodied the punk movement in snowboarding than Palmer. Shaun was one of the first big stars in snowboarding and he personified everything it is to be punk. He totally had the attitude of the quintessential punk. On one occasion he protested a half-pipe competition by riding down the pipe with both middle fingers in the sky. Furthermore, he had a reputation for being drunk on a regular basis. He also dressed like a punk, Shaun often died his hair pink and would wear a Misfits jacket (Misfits is a hardcore punk band that was popular in the 1980s). Shaun was even the front-man for a punk rock band named Fungus later in his career. Finally, Shaun transformed snowboarding freestyle. He pioneered a very aggressive style, doing tricks bigger than anyone had ever seen before. By being a counter-cultural outlet snowboarding became even more popular. Counter-cultures have a certain attractiveness to them, especially to young people. The punk movement in snowboarding drew lots of young people to the sport, helping the sport grow but still maintaining its edgy nature. This is a key piece of how and why snowboarding has grown to such popularity in short order.

Shaun Palmer rocking his Misfits jacket

1990's urban street culture influences snowboarding

As the years went on snowboarding continued to grow in popularity. By the 1990’s the ban on snowboarding at major resorts was essentially gone. By the end of the decade snowboarding would even be featured in the Olympics, solidifying its place as a legitimate sport. A new counter-cultural movement would also utilize snowboarding to express itself during the 90s, contributing to the rich character of the sport. This counter cultural movement was the hip/hop/ street and urban culture. Like the punk movement hip-hop/street culture is hard to define precisely but its main focus is giving communities unique ways to express themselves, mainly through music and fashion. Once again snowboarding would have a symbiotic relationship with street culture just as it did with punk culture. In fact, street culture would prove to be even more influential, much of the riding style established from street culture in the 90s still pervades the sport today. Skateboarding was very popular in street culture, i.e. street skating (as opposed to vert). This is evidenced by urban guys like Kareem Campbell who were big-time skateboarding pros in the 1990s. Many of the tricks in street skating found their way into snowboarding. For example, jibbing down hand rails, or throwing spins down stair sets. These tricks were invented by street kids on skateboards and as those same kids started snowboarding they brought their unique style with them. This really helped push snowboarding to new limits. Fashion also changed drastically in snowboarding during the 1990s. Hip-hop, rap, and street culture embraced very baggy clothing with sagged pants and hoodies. These movements started extending themselves into snowboarding and riders started dressing in the same way that guys would dress in rap music videos

1990's snowboarder. Note the baggy clothes and the "street" trick.

Spiritual Aspect of snowboarding

Snowboarding can be a religious experience, being outside in nature can bring you closer to God. This is especially prevalent when riding glades in the back country. Furthermore being on a mountain is at its core religious. The bible is full of stories that took place on a mountain, for example the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Personally I have always felt God's presence when snowboarding, especially when gazing from the top of the mountain on a sunny day.

Connection to Class: Parables of Kierkegaard

In order to relate this paper to class it seems appropriate to bring up a parable from Kierkegaard. Although the animosity held by skiers towards snowboarders is not as great as it was in the 80s there is certainly still some level of disdain. This feeling of dislike for a group of people can be transposed to much larger scenarios than skiing vs snowboarding. A current events example that comes to mind immediately is the ongoing Israeli vs Palestinian conflict. A parable from Kierkegaard, titled “The Costume of the Actor” gives insight into how foolish these conflicts really are. The parable likens the experience of life to actors acting on a stage. In life the “actors” have become so caught up in their roles that they truly believe they are the role. This leads people to forget that when the play ends and the curtain drops we will all be the same, human beings. Kierkegaard writes, “But when the curtain falls, the one who played the king, and the one who played the beggar, and all the others- they are all quite alike, all one in the same” [15]. If in the end, we are all the same, does it make sense to judge others based on differences here in life? The answer is no of course not. So just as skiers and snowboarders should get along and enjoy each other for who they are, so should all human beings be tolerant of each other and not pass judgement, we are all the same in the end.

Final Thoughts

There were many times I wanted to change my topic because I really found it difficult to connect snowboarding to topics from class. However, I stuck with it because personally snowboarding has brought me some of my greatest memories. One of the qualities of snowboarding is that it brings people together, I've had so many great days with my buddies on the mountain. Snowboarding has also taught me the reward of hard work. I remember years ago when I was first learning 360s, I took so many bad falls and I wanted to give up but I kept pushing. Now I I'm able to spin 720s off the biggest jumps in the park. God-willing I will continue to snowboard and push myself until I am physically unable.


Created with images by Ostap Senyuk - "Getting ready" • Philipp Kämmerer - "Snowboarder in flight" • sasint - "ancient meditation architecture asia background bangkok a" • Simon - "rough horn alpine tannheimer mountains mountain allgäu" • Tyler Nix - "untitled image"

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