To gauge how snowboarding’s profile has soared since it crashed the Olympic party at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, just ask Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White. If you can.
The Flying Tomato’s publicist says the Olympic and X Games halfpipe champion is not doing interviews this week, which in itself says much about the enormous appeal of White and the sport he is steering to new heights of popularity.
A decade ago, if you needed an interview with a snowboarder you were more likely to approach his or her mother than a management company.
Those days are over. If you want a sit-down one-on-one with White, or any of the other US headliners going to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games this month, you need to go through the proper channels.
While snowboarders fiercely cling to their counter-culture roots there is no denying that a decade of growth and three Olympic Games have brought the sport mainstream appeal and even, dare it be said, respectability.
Once unwelcome at ski resorts, snowboarders now rule over mountains they were chased from, and White is their king.
Absorbed into the establishment they used to rebel against, snowboarders have become part of a multi-billion-dollar industry where the biggest names are linked with everything from mainstream television to ice cream endorsements.
Louie Vito, one of White’s Olympic halfpipe team mates, prepared for the Vancouver Winter Games working up a sweat on the top-rated American television series Dancing With the Stars while 2006 champion Hannah Teter has a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour named after her: The Maple Blondie.
“The sport is going more the mainstream route,” White told Reuters, running fingers through the famous, long, red hair that inspired the nickname, after finally agreeing to a satellite interview.
“Obviously more people are getting involved. There’s more money for the core companies that are making the boards and making the jackets and gloves and everything.
“You show up at a mountain now where you used to not even be able to go ride and they’re competing with other mountains for who has the best snowboard park, or who has a 22-foot halfpipe. It’s amazing.
“Since I was six years old I’ve been in the mix and watching this grow and change. I never would have expected it to go this far. But I’m happy it has.”
White, who signed his first promotional deal when he was seven, has grown into a marketing titan with his own clothing line, video games and a line-up of endorsements that would make Roger Federer envious.
One of his major sponsors, Red Bull energy drink, built him a controversial, private superpipe dubbed “Project X” in the Colorado countryside reachable only by helicopter and snowmobile so he could create a new arsenal of tricks for Vancouver.
With an income put at US$9 million in 2008 by Forbes magazine, White could be the wealthiest Olympian residing in the Vancouver athletes’ village, ahead of National Hockey League (NHL) players Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin or downhiller Lindsey Vonn.
“It’s just what I do,” said White, 23. “I think it’s what I was built to do. It’s fun and I’m glad and I feel fortunate to have found a calling like this, something that I’m good at. I definitely can’t imagine my life without the sport.”
To anyone over 40, White and his boarding buddies may be a bunch of kids in need of clothes that fit but according to the highly respected and influential magazine Fast Company he is the “tractor beam to the US$150-billion youth market”.
Part of White’s immense appeal is that he has been able to maintain his street-level credibility while living a jet-set lifestyle that includes a Lamborghini sports car.
With the International Olympic Committee (IOC) desperate to develop some “street cred” of its own, snowboarding has become the cornerstone of the Olympic youth movement.
Despite being a poster boy for the Vancouver Games White’s ties to the Olympics are flimsy, however.
He is rarely seen on the World Cup circuit, competing in only one event since the Turin Games – just enough to meet the minimum qualifications for Vancouver.
Instead, White and most of the world’s best halfpipers McTwist their way around the world competing in big air and professional tour events.
The Olympics would appear to need White more than he needs the Olympics but the relationship has benefited both.
Already an icon to the YouTube generation, White has got more worldwide exposure from the Olympics than he could have achieved from 10 X Games. But the Olympic experience comes at a steep price – conformity.
“For me it was just such a wild experience just to go (Turin 2006),” said White. “To go there you basically get processed, where they take you through this whole gauntlet of getting clothes and opening ceremony outfits and closing ceremony outfits and dinner outfits and award outfits.
“There’s so much protocol that goes on. You really, truly take your own identity, in a way, and kind of put it aside. You’re Team USA when you show up.
“I’ve never really had that in my sport. Obviously, we’re such unique individuals. We do our own events; we do our own tricks, name our tricks what we want. To actually put that aside and now you’re on a team, it’s just different.”