ZHANGJIAKOU, China – In the Olympic-level snowboarding and freestyle skiing world, there is an innocuous-sounding compound word that almost always evokes a visceral reaction – a deep sigh, a shaking of the head, a knowing nod.
Nothing has revolutionized the halfpipe, slopestyle and big air competitions quite like giant air bags. And nothing has so divided devotees of the events, who see air bags either as useful training tools or a misguided shortcut to success, even cheating.
“Air bags have become like the performance-enhancing drug for freestyle skiing and snowboarding over the past couple of years,” said Charles Beckinsale, director of Stomping Grounds Projects, a leading builder of slopestyle courses and halfpipes around the world.
The quiet influence of air bags is likely to be on display at the Beijing Games. Their rising use – ensuring a soft landing until the trick is deemed ready to attempt on the far more dangerous landing surfaces of ice and snow – has ratcheted up skill levels.
Young athletes from China and Japan train far more on artificial slopes with pillowy landings than they do on snow. Other countries are adding air bags, many of them shaped to mimic the contour of a slope, to keep up with the trends in training tools for their national programs.
The result: Tricks are getting harder and more dangerous – more twists and more spins, with more athletes able to do them.
“You can practice over and over again until you have your trick dialed – without the heavy risk of a hard landing,” BagJump, an air bag pioneer based in Austria, touts on its website.
But lots of people in snowboarding and freeskiing, especially veteran athletes, question whether the proliferation of air bags runs counter to the soul of their sports. They see trick progression as a deliberate, almost monastic pursuit, using the mastery of one maneuver to open up the next, in logical, semi-safe order. Managing danger and fear is part of the skill set.
“Now people can just fling themselves, and maybe they can’t even do a good backside 1080, but they can do a backside triple cork 1620 because they got to skip that step with no consequence,” said Mark McMorris, 28, who is one of the leading snowboarders of the past decade and is competing in his third Olympics.
“It’s a little bit of cheating your way to the top,” he added.
But those who choose to train without air bags are at risk of being left behind.
“Even our skiers who first were like, ‘Eh, air bag, it’s not my thing,’ are now like, ‘OK, I need to do this,’” the U.S. Olympic freeskiing coach Dave Euler said.
From Hollywood to the hills
In the months before the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, snowboarder Shaun White, the 2006 Olympic champion in the halfpipe, practiced in a private halfpipe with a foam pit at the end. It was deemed a competitive advantage, and White went on to win gold again.
But giant air bags, long the hidden secret of Hollywood stunts, were already moving to the snow. Demand rose when the Olympics added slopestyle to the roster of events in 2014, and big air in 2018.
Now every leading snowboarder and freeskier has access to air bags throughout the year because of companies like BagJump and Progression Airbags, which is based in Canada.
Most differentiate between flat bags (enormous mattress-shaped bags with inflated bumpers to keep athletes from sliding off the sides) and landing bags (contoured to the landing slopes, to give a truer sense of landing on a snowy course or the near-vertical wall of a halfpipe).
Landing bags can be 200 feet long and nearly 100 feet wide, and athletes can land on their feet and ride away.
“It’s kind of like a big Slip ‘N Slide,” Euler said. “And it’s really taken the progression of all skiing to the next level.”
The “vert” bags now used in halfpipes have helped top athletes practice triple corks – three corkscrew rotations – which are likely to be the must-have tricks for men who want to win a gold medal this week at the Beijing Games.
Most countries with competitive Olympic snowboard and freeskiing programs have at least one air bag for training. The United States has one in Park City, Utah, but it was battered in a windstorm last year, leaving the Americans scrambling for places to train in the offseason.
“Freestyle snowboarding and skiing being Olympic sports means there are budgets for this type of facility,” said Hannes Rasinger, managing director for BagJump. “The travel restrictions during Covid have definitely promoted this development because it showed how important it is to have facilities within your own borders.”
Japan has been a leader of air bag use for more than a decade. A dozen or more terrain parks around the country use air bags of all sizes. Parents bring their children, sometimes for days at a time, and let them hurl themselves into air bags again and again. It is a wintertime echo of skateboarding culture in Japan.
“I started snowboarding because of skateboarding, with my friends,” said Lee Ponzio, an Australian who helps coach Japan’s Olympic snowboarding team. “Just going out and doing it, and nothing to do with parents. It’s not about being a sport. But these kids in Japan, they grew up kind of to compete.”
And now they are winning medals. At the Olympic Games last summer in Tokyo, Japan dominated the skateboarding competition. In Beijing, it has a reasonable shot at sweeping the podium in the men’s halfpipe competition.
China, which is likely to win multiple medals, too, has also embraced air bags. Indoor ski resorts are sprouting up in many cities, some with training centers filled with air bags. China intends for the Beijing Games to propel millions into winter sports.
“I’ve seen pictures and videos of these places in Japan and China that are just like air bag cities,” American freeskier Nick Goepper, a two-time Olympic medalist in slopestyle who will compete in Beijing, said.
China’s snowboarding and freestyle skiing teams did not compete much in international competitions the past couple of years because of the pandemic, and emerged this winter as powerhouses in several events.
“There’s a lot of gymnast-style athletes that are coming into snowboarding,” Beckinsale said. “Not necessarily great snowboarders, but they ride air bags and come out of nowhere with great aerial awareness and lots of tricks. That’s kind of the direction it’s going. And China’s booming right now.”
Some who excel in big air, judged on just one jump, might struggle in slopestyle, which requires a broader skill set and an active imagination. Slopestyle includes a series of rails and several jumps that vary in size and shape.
“A lot of judges say they can see it, particularly between tricks on a slopestyle course, how well a rider controls their board,” Ponzio said. “I had one just tell me at the last event: ‘That kid can’t ride. He’s amazing, but he can’t ride a snowboard.’”
Attitudes about air bags tend to reflect a generational divide. Like McMorris, Jamie Anderson, 31, a two-time gold medalist from the United States, prefers building her tricks methodically on snow.
“I don’t like doing air bags, so everything takes a bit longer,” she said. “But I hope to learn my tricks with a lot of power and a good foundation, so when I do have them, I’ll have them for a long time.”
But younger athletes are used to using air bags or willing to adapt to them.
“In moderation, an air bag can be super beneficial,” said the American snowboarder Maddie Mastro, 21, a gold medal hopeful in the halfpipe along with Chloe Kim, among others. “You might as well try a new trick into it three times and then see how that goes. And then go from there and work more on snow.”
Goepper, 27, falls between the old guard and the new generation. He said air bags are a selling point for parents looking to put their children into camps and onto club teams. But there is deep-rooted nostalgia for learning tricks on makeshift jumps with friends, unscripted and unsupervised.
“You just have to find a nice balance between the rawness of experiencing that fear firsthand, and trying not to remove it completely,” he said.
A lot of top freeskiers and snowboarders, he said, get so comfortable flopping into air bags that they struggle to make the transition to the snow, with its hard landings and real consequences. That, he said, is what makes competitions like the Olympics so intriguing.
“No matter what kind of magical training tools start to appear, you need to be able to conjure up the confidence to drop in when it’s snowing sideways and super windy and it’s your last run or it’s the biggest event of the year or whatever,” Goepper said. “No amount of air bags and training facilities are going to prepare you for what it takes to be the ultimate competitor, and not just the ultimate trick master.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.