Going Extreme: Snowboarding And Moguls

We've seen it dozens of times after sporting moments much like this one. The United States had just finished a thrilling medal sweep in the men's snowboarding halfpipe, and a spectator with a video camera was face to face with one of the stars of the hour. "Danny Kass, you just won the silver medal," he said, following the familiar Disney script. "Are you going to go home and smoke crack?" Kass's long hair dipped below a pair of sleepy eyes. He smiled for his goofball buddy and gleefully played along. "Dude," he answered, "I am gonna smoke the fattest..." Then Kass stopped, noticing the man with a NEWSWEEK media credential standing next to him and scribbling on his notepad. "Dude, nice try!" he said to his pal. "You almost got me, man! Drugs are bad! I've gotta go take a drug test! I love drug tests!"

Clearly, Kass is getting the hang of this Olympics thing. Be polite. Keep comments mainstream. And, please, no on-camera stoner jokes. The learning curve, though, is much steeper in the other direction. The Winter Olympics are the fussy old fuddy-duddy of the sports world--its governing body, the International Olympic Committee, didn't help that image when it announced this month a crackdown on "crotch shots" in figure skating--and the gradual addition of extreme sports in the 1990s was seen as a grudging effort to make the Olympics palatable to 13-year-olds. So the IOC's heart must've skipped a beat last week when Kass's fellow medalists, Ross Powers (gold) and J. J. Thomas (bronze), celebrated by signing the bare left and right breasts, respectively, of a comely fan. Or when pop-punk band Lit rocked the crowd before the women's finals run. Or whenever Kass, 19, opens his mouth. (Our favorite gem: telling reporters that the team manager was a blowup doll.)

U.S. Olympic officials, on the other hand, are, like, totally stoked. Coming into Salt Lake, they guaranteed that the United States would eclipse its record for medals at a Winter Games, a puny 13. Well, that mark was smashed on Friday, just seven days into the fortnight, powered by the seven medals racked up by our X-Games expats. In addition to the men's halfpipe trifecta, the first American sweep in 46 years, there was 18-year-old Kelly Clark's gold on the women's side, plus silvers from Shannon Bahrke and Travis Mayer in the moguls and a bronze from Chris Klug in slalom snowboarding. In just four days, extreme sports--or "action sports," as their devotees wish them to be called, with all due respect to the 85mph action-free alpine downhill--have gone from the obnoxious kid brother to the backbone of an American medal machine.

The athletes, meanwhile, have exploded from niche-magazine anonymity to stars in the late-night TV constellation. There was Clark on Leno last Monday, getting a thumbs-up from Britney Spears. Powers, Kass and Thomas did Letterman on Tuesday. And mogul skier Jonny Moseley will, get this, host "Saturday Night Live" on March 2--and he didn't even win a medal. (Moseley came in fourth, but --his dinner-roll jump was the most electric act at the Games thus far. More on that later.) Suddenly Kass and Moseley, the most charismatic of the crew, are household names. The entire household, that is, not just the basement playroom. In Minneapolis, three generations of the Forsline family--4-year-old Carl, 35-year-old Paul and 79-year-old Richard--sat transfixed. "I didn't even know this was a sport," said Gramps. "If I was young again, that's definitely what I'd be doing."

Of course, there's no way a pesky subculture like extreme sports could be absorbed into the Olympics juggernaut without some kicking and screaming. After all, it emerged as a direct response to the commercialism and competitiveness of the big boys. The same kids appearing on Leno today would've been mortified by the thought four years ago.

There are fault lines already. Powers, for example, the gold medalist, is nothing close to the hero among the baggy-panted rank and file that Kass is. The media love Kass, a Gen-Y Jeff Spicoli, as well. After the race, seven reporters tried to follow him into the bathroom. (Though none from NEWSWEEK. We promise.) Powers won in Salt Lake by hewing to what the judges respond to most: big air, or "amplitude," which is a science-geek word but everyone seems cool with that. Kass, meanwhile, with his camouflage boots and born to kill-inscribed snowboard, is the more daring technician. Purists fear their games will grow as static and Olympified as figure skating, a sport whose idea of innovation is adding one more revolution to a triple toe loop. Sure, fine, it's hard. Like you can tell the difference.

Moseley's dinner roll was a calculated effort to drag moguls skiing back to its envelope-pushing roots. The jump, an "off axis" trick in which Moseley hurls himself perpendicular to the hill and then rolls twice in the air, is a breathtaking sight. It was also illegal--too risky-- until he petitioned the governing body for permission. He got it, but the sport's conservative judges never cottoned to the trick, consistently giving him so-so scores. But Moseley, 26, who won the gold in Nagano in 1998, was determined to do the trick--even if it cost him a medal.

At Park City last Tuesday, Moseley nailed the dinner roll and the crowd of 30,000 went berserk. But in the moguls event, each of the two jumps --counts for only 12.5 percent of one's score; speed and turning on the bumps are much more critical. Following the race, Mayer and gold medalist Janne Lahtela suggested Moseley should have spent less time on his dinner roll and more on his skiing. Said Lahtela: "It takes a lot more than one jump to win a gold medal." Moseley's response: yeah, duh, but you're missing the point. Lahtela won by throwing a "triple twister," in which you hold your skis together and rotate them side to side three times like a metronome. It's pretty lame. If it's good enough for gold, Moseley said, "then we obviously haven't gone very far." Salt Lake fans Charlotte Moats, 21, and Kristen Ulmer, 34, agreed, toting a sign that read open your minds. no more twisters.

One quirky edge the Olympics haven't yet sanded away is the habit of extreme athletes to stick together. Like, no matter where we're from, we're all bros. That kind of thing. True to form, before Swiss snowboarder Gilles Jaquet headed up the hill for a run, Klug gave him a boost. "Dude, have a great run," he said. Klug, who's rooming at Olympic Village with Powers and Kass, tried on Powers's gold medal the day before his own race. "Whether you're a [half]piper or a racer, an American or from Switzerland, the competition's all about having fun," Klug said later. "Afterward, we all party together." And it's not an under-30 affair. Bill Marolt, CEO of the U.S. Ski Association, blew off Picabo Street's mel-ancholy swan song at Snowbasin Ski Area last Tuesday so he could catch the dinner roll. Could you blame him? Flanked by mogul racer Hannah Hardaway and her fiance, freestyle aerialist Brian Currett, the self-described "old coach" gasped along with everyone else. History may have been unfolding at Snowbasin, but the future of the Olympics was right here.