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Page last updated at 16:05 GMT, Friday, 3 December 2010

A freestyle future for UK winter sport?

Free-style snow sport the future?

By Katie Still
BBC Scotland's Sport Monthly

Alley Oop. 360 Air to Fakie. Frontside 720

If you're not familiar with these peculiar phrases then dude, you better catch up!

Over the next few years top class winter sport as you know it could change forever.

You'll still be able to enjoy traditional alpine skiing and witness incredible speeds on the downhill, but there is a shift happening in the UK.

In the unrelenting pursuit of medals, the attention of winter sport administrators is turning to the freestyle events.

Those that reward spins, grabs, grinds, and flips (slopestyle), the snowboard half pipe and the events with the crashes - skier and boarder cross.

To put it in simple terms, the UK is a non-alpine nation, although you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise this week, and that means our elite skiers have to train abroad and are generally not introduced to skiing until they are much older.

This means it's expensive and not 'in our blood' in the same way it is for the Austrians for example.

So, given this set of circumstances, not counting Alain Baxter being stripped of his slalom Olympic Bronze for doping, we have never won an Olympic medal in the snow sports (ignoring the ice sports).

Snowboarder Ben Kilner
Snowboarder Ben Kilner is rated highly by the BOA

The amount of time and money that would need to be spent in nurturing an alpine athlete into the top 10 in the world is huge, so the BOA bosses will be scratching their heads wondering how more medals could be won.

In the wake of the collapsed Snowsport GB, the new snow sport governing body - British Ski and Snowboard - is primarily concerned with raising money to support their elite performers, but, according to chief executive Dave Edwards, their focus is also turning to the freestyle events.

"It's much easier to teach people to jump and ride a rail in Britain than it is to have a speed event, so we have more of a level playing field there," he said.

Head of Winter Sport Engagement for the British Olympic Association, Mike Hay, is keen to try to fast track athletes into these sports.

"I think we need to look at the new sports. Ski cross came in and was a big hit at the Olympic Games and is probably going to challenge the traditions of Alpine Skiing because people were really interested it looking at the tactics of a real race.

"So I think we're going to have to look for some talent transfer, maybe coming from the alpiners. And then we have the 'youth appeal' sports if you like, snowboard half pipe with Scotland's Ben Kilner, he got third place in the World Cup last year, he's a fantastic prospect," said Hay.

Snowsport Scotland is mainly charged with grassroots development, and they are taking this new wave of interest very seriously.

Chief executive of Snowsport Scotland, Jane Harvey, is optimistic they can capture this enthusiasm and are already making pathways from beginner to elite.

British snowboarder Jenny Jones
British snowboarder Jenny Jones will be aiming for Olympic gold

"There has been a shift in focus, not away from one discipline but we're actually now focusing a bit more of our resources on developing elite athletes on our part of the pathway," she said.

It's worth mentioning that slopestyle looks likely to be in the next Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014 - the International Ski Federation (FIS) Congress met in Turkey and, after considering proposals from the USA, Canada and New Zealand, both snowboard slopestyle and team snowboardcross were unanimously adopted on to the programme of the FIS Snowboard World Championships.

As the FIS claims the decision was made in hopes of "developing the FIS disciplines in a progressive way and focusing on their appeal to the younger generations and in the media," it's obvious that both the FIS and the International Olympic Committee see how popular snowboarding has become and realise it would make sense to include it in the 2014 games.

This will be music to the ears of British snowboarder Jenny Jones, the current X Games World Champion in slopestyle, who'll be eyeing up a medal of the Olympic variety.

Like all elite sport, the problem is cash.

UK Sport fund named athletes on eight-year cycles aiming mainly for Olympic success. They are unapologetic about investing in success and that means athletes need to prove their pedigree on the world stage and rank in the top 10 in the world to even come onto their radar.

So, whilst the ambition is clearly there, there could be some way to go until we see the glint of gold, but I'm willing to eat my woolly hat if our next snow sport medal isn't from one of the freestyle events.

Sport Monthly will be broadcast on BBC Two Scotland on 4 December at 1755 GMT.

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see also
Kilner's Olympic half-pipe story
19 Feb 10 |  Snowboarding
No cold comfort in Canada
27 Feb 10 |  Vancouver 2010

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