The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics are coming up in February, which means we’re about to witness another high-stakes season of snowboarding and freeskiing. There will be added pressure on all the athletes this winter as they attempt to qualify for the Olympics and dial in the runs that they hope will lead them onto the podium in South Korea.
Qualifying actually started last season, but the bulk of the important action is taking place in the months ahead. For US athletes, the Road to PyeongChang will be going through Breckenridge just as it did four years ago before the 2014 Sochi Games. That’s because Dew Tour is once again a selection event for the US Olympic team. It will be one of several contests that American snowboarders and freeskiers will use to try to meet the selection criteria set forth by the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team.
Olympic qualifying can be a complex affair, so we broke it down for you.
How do athletes qualify for the Olympics?
Technically, athletes don’t directly qualify for the Olympics. Instead, they earn Olympic quota spots for their countries. It’s then up to each country to decide how to fill those spots. The International Ski Federation, or FIS, maintains Olympic quota allocation lists for each snowboarding and freeskiing discipline. These correlate to points earned at FIS-sanctioned events, namely World Cups and the 2017 World Championships. Many of the major contests, such as Dew Tour and X Games, don’t actually count toward this. The qualifying period started with last season (2016/17) and will conclude on January 21.
The Olympic quota allocation lists determine which countries earn Olympic quota spots and how many quota spots they earn. Each discipline has a maximum number of athletes. For example, men’s snowboard halfpipe has a limit of 30 athletes for PyeongChang, so any athlete in the top 30 of the final rankings earns an Olympic quota spot for their country. But there’s a few catches -- the most important one is that each country can only have a maximum of four quota spots in each discipline. So the final list of 30 will end up looking different than the current list once extraneous spots are removed for countries that have more than four highly-ranked athletes. Also, the athletes on the list are not necessarily the athletes who will compete at the Olympics since each nation has its own selection process.
So it’s not a given how many quota spots the US gets?
The final ranking list won’t technically be official until January 21, but right now, the US is in position to qualify four athletes in every discipline. It’s expected that they will end up with four athletes in most, if not all, of these disciplines.
Great! But if the US only gets four spots, how do they decide who gets to go?
That’s where the Olympic selection events come into play. The U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team has designated a series of selection events (dates below) that will determine the Olympic team roster. Any snowboarder who lands on the podium at one of the selection events, or any freeskier who lands on the podium at two of the selection events, is eligible to qualify by objective criteria.
In each discipline, there are three Olympic team spots available for athletes who qualify by objective criteria. Assuming that more than three athletes meet this criteria, a ranking point list will be compiled. On this list, athletes are assigned ranking points based on their two best results from the selection events, and the top three athletes on the list will be named to the Olympic team.
Below is the list of US Olympic selection events. Last February’s US Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain was the first Olympic qualifier for all disciplines except men’s and women’s snowboard halfpipe (there was a competition, but it was not a qualifier) and men’s freeski slopestyle (it was cancelled due to weather).
Feb. 1-5, 2017 -- Mammoth Grand Prix
Dec. 6-10, 2017 -- Copper Grand Prix
Dec. 15-16, 2017 -- Dew Tour
Jan. 10-14, 2018 -- Aspen Grand Prix*
Jan. 17-21, 2018 -- Mammoth Grand Prix*
*Events that will have two qualifiers for freeski slopestyle
What about that fourth spot on the team?
The fourth spot is reserved for a discretionary selection by the coaching staff. This is where an athlete who was sidelined with an injury during the qualifying process (e.g. Torin Yater-Wallace in 2014) might be added to the Olympic team, or the coaches might give the spot to an athlete who showed promise but didn’t qualify through the objective criteria.
There’s also a chance that this spot doesn’t get filled at all. The Olympics have a roster cap in each sport. In snowboarding, halfpipe and slopestyle share a roster with boardercross and parallel giant slalom. In skiing, halfpipe and slopestyle share a roster with moguls, aerials and ski cross. Depending on how many quota spots the US has earned across all those disciplines in each sport, they may not be able to use some of their discretionary spots.
And remember that objective criteria we talked about earlier? Well, if fewer than three athletes hit that criteria, then any unclaimed spots turn into extra discretionary selections, meaning it’s possible that two or more Olympic spots could be in the hands of the coaches in certain disciplines.
So any US athlete is eligible to make the team?
Kind of. The FIS has minimum eligibility requirements. In order to get named to an Olympic team, an athlete must fulfill the following criteria during the qualifying period: place top 30 of a World Cup event or the 2017 World Championships, score a minimum of 50 FIS points.
There’s been a lot of talk about slopestyle, but isn’t snowboard big air an Olympic event too now?
It is! This will be the first Olympics to feature snowboard big air. But for qualifying purposes, snowboard slopestyle and big air are combined. All snowboard slopestyle athletes are eligible to compete in big air, and vice versa.
USA rocks! Some of my favorite athletes are from other countries though. What about them?
Each country has their own method for selecting their Olympic team, and some will even be using Dew Tour as a factor in their decision-making. For many countries, this will be a relatively straightforward process. But some countries will face a much tougher selection process. This is particularly true in men’s snowboard slopestyle and big air, where two of the strongest countries, Canada and Norway, have deep rosters that will need to be trimmed down. Canada has already provisionally nominated Mark McMorris and Max Parrot, leaving just two spots still up for grabs.