- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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When snowboarding made its Olympic debut four years ago at the Nagano Games, it was anything but a smooth ride.
There was Austrian snowboarder Martin Freinademetz, who had his Olympics credential revoked after a hotel party spilled out of control, leaving a $4,000 switchboard in ruins. And then there was Canadian Ross Rebagliati, who won the giant slalom, but had his gold medal yanked after testing positive for marijuana. It took an appeals board ruling to return the medal to him.
All in all, the debut was a disaster. The sport was blasted from Nagano to the Netherlands for its juvenile, crude, tactless ways. A New York Times columnist compared the snowboarders competing on Japan's Mount Yakebitai to the snow monkeys that bathe on the hill. It was an article that stuck with Tricia Byrnes, a hopeful for the 2002 U.S. team.
"Somebody faxed it to me and I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " Byrnes said. "It made me so annoyed. We all like to have fun and party like the next guy, but we're not monkeys. It was just a total a slap in the face. You would never see figure skaters or anyone like that compared to monkeys. I was appalled."
And yet the treatment wasn't uncommon during snowboarding's debut in Nagano. The events were barely shown on TV at all. On the venue schedules, the sport was listed as "S-N-O-BOARD." Prior to one event, Olympics officials iced down an Alpine board course as if it was a ski course, and everyone fell. And though a thunderstorm canceled skiing events on the mountain one day, the snowboarders nevertheless were forced to go out and compete.
But now comes the second chance -- for everyone. The popularity of snowboarding has continued to soar since the Nagano Games, with the sport now the nation's fastest growing, according to American Sports Data. NBC has taken notice and announced plans to devote airtime to the sport at Salt Lake.
The IOC is planning a smoother ride for snowboarders. And boarders are planning to be on the best behavior.
"Most of the people have adjusted to us now and we've adjusted to them," boarder Peter Thorndike said. "We used to have that image that we were a bunch of punk kids who were just out to cause trouble and raise a little hell. But we've steered away from that now. Now people see us as just a pretty cool sport that everybody enjoys."
But there remain points of contention. After all, turning an expressive, individual sport that started from a virtual grass-roots operation into an Olympic competition can be difficult. It's the classic case of fitting a square peg into a round hole.
"The whole thing about snowboarding is it's just an amazing spirit," Byrnes said. "Everyone is out there helping each other and pushing each other. It isn't something that gets cut-throat or overly competitive. A lot of times, you forget you are even competing against different countries because we're all peers. We just try to help each other and push each other, so a competition sometimes feels weird."
And then there is the beef over uniforms. At Nagano, many boarders were livid that their individuality was stripped from them for the good of the team. Figure skaters don't wear team uniforms, so why should they? Nevertheless, team uniforms will be back this year. The U.S. uniforms are black with a VISA sponsorship patch, the very presence of which stirs even more controversy for many competitors from a sport that's anti-corporate America.
"It's a terrible turnoff," Byrnes admits. "But I'm doing what I love so I can't complain. It's one of those things -- if you want to be a part of the Olympics, you have to play their game.
"We're lucky that these companies want to support us. It's not a bad thing. Because of all this support, whenever I retire, I won't have to worry about working at 7-Eleven or something," she said. "If it was just me and my five friends on some hill somewhere, we'd be broke and hungry."
The arguments start all the way at the top, where snowboarding, a sport that has long bucked heads with the skiing world, was placed under the direction of the Federation Internationale due Ski, skiing's Switzerland-based worldwide governing body.
Boarders were livid that their sport was being put under the ski umbrella. At issue was the way the skiing federation was taking snowboarding, a sport based largely on creative expression, and turning it into a competition. Issues such as how national teams were comprised, judges selected and qualification points were allocated drew contention.
"Awarding the snowboarding rights to the ski association, and saying that snowboarding was a discipline of skiing was the equivalent of saying that curling is a division of figure skating because they are both on ice," said Jennifer Sherowski, an editor at TransWorld Snowboarding Magazine.
Some athletes will skip the Games altogether. Those who won't return for the Olympics include Rebagliati and Terjie Haakanson, arguably the best freestyle boarder in the world. "I do not boycott the Olympics, as the press has said. I just choose not to compete in them," Haakanson said. "I ride the way I want to ride."
Though the setup is still the same, boarders have seen some changes.
"It was like we had worked so hard to get accepted, then they accept us but it's under their rules and their way," Thorndike said. "We were like, 'How can you take it out of our hands and run it like some kind of ski event?' But slowly, but surely, as we earn more respect, we are getting our own people in there that are making things happen for both sides."
And there's little doubt that even greater acceptance is on the horizon. Perhaps there is no better example for that than in Park City, Utah, where five years ago boarders were not even allowed to set foot on the snowy slopes. It will be at Park City where the snowboarding events for the 2002 Winter Olympics will be held in February.
"It's an upscale kind of town with a lot of older, wealthy people who had stuck with skiing their whole life and didn't want to open their doors to all these punk kids," Thorndike said. "But once they did, they realized we're not so bad after all.
"That's all we ask people to do -- give us a chance. And we know you'll be impressed."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com
1dBonnie D. Ford