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Still, the appearance of Rahlves and Puckett in Olympic ski cross conjures images of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon getting together for one more buddy movie. And how ironically nonsensical is it that two elder statesmen lead a U.S. ski cross team that, in just its second year, is a relative infant in a relatively infant sport? And the team is led by a coach, Tyler Shepherd, who is several years younger than his two star players.
But then why should anything ski cross–related make clear sense? At the threshold of its Olympic debut, it’s an event tangled in an identity crisis of still-unresolved growing pains—an inchoate concept informed as much by matters of opinion as by well-defined standards.
At the core of its appeal is the pure simplicity of head-to-head competition—first man to the finish wins. But not so fast: Course design, rules, clothing and even the name of the sport itself are spread across a complex matrix of differing points of view.
Take the name, for starters. International Ski Federation (FIS) officials, with the zeal of a company protecting against trademark infringement, insist the name is “ski cross.” They bristle at the use of “skiercross,” and while the initialized SX is used in official FIS results, the abbreviated X is considered a bit sinister.
Although obviously a racing sport, it has slipped into the FIS fold under the “freestyle” rubric. To have a racing event in the realm of judged freestyle skiing is an oddity arising from cross’s history. It’s a sport born and raised in freeriding competitions such as ESPN’s X Games.
That history also gives rise to a controversy peculiar to the event: What’s fair to wear? Originally billed as “anti-racing racing”—bucking the supposedly stale traditions of alpine competition—cross eschewed skin-tight Lycra in favor of baggy freeride wear. Early crossers felt that, while the extra material was less aerodynamic, it was important to make a symbolic sartorial stand. They wanted to represent a hypercool freeskiing hardcore, not some racer-geek fringe. Cross was racing with a freeride aesthetic.
But as cross has edged into the competitive mainstream, outfits have moved steadily—perhaps predictably—toward tighter, more aerodynamic designs. In theory, there is a pinch rule—suits should be loose enough that, when pinched, a healthy amount of material can be held between forefinger and thumb. But many athletes flout the limits.