An Olympic Dream of a Different Kind for Snowboard Pioneer Burton

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February 13, 2006

BARDONECCHIA, Italy (AP by Brett Martel)—Three decades ago, Jake Burton was working out of a station wagon, trying to persuade American ski shop owners that this new thing he had designed _ yes, the snowboard _ had a place on ski slopes.

On Sunday, instead of begging for business, Burton was a VIP at the 2006 Winter Games, watching world-famous halfpiper Shaun White delight the foot-stomping crowd with soaring spins. As expected, White won gold for the Americans _ who wore the Burton company label stitched on the sleeves of their white, pinstriped jackets.

"I couldn't be more proud or happy or just stoked to be here, Burton said, looking a fit and youthful 51, his dirty-blond hair poking out of the back of his hat. "It's been a humbling experience along the way.

Burton is big on humility, refusing to accept the "inventor label bestowed by the likes of U.S. men's snowboarding coach Bud Keene.

"I wouldn't be sitting here right now and earning my living and raising my kids from snowboarding if it hadn't been for Jake inventing the thing and I'm grateful for that, big time, and psyched to know him, said Keene, who lives near Burton in Burlington, Vt.

Burton insists he did little more than push the development of a concept that was hardly revolutionary. He looked at snow-covered mountains and saw another medium for the thrills of surfing and skateboarding.

"I sort of helped discover and pioneer something that was there and was going to happen sooner or later, Burton said. "I don't put myself ahead or above the sport.

Which is why he has come around to embracing his sport's inclusion in the Olympics. When snowboarding first came to the Olympics at Nagano in 1998, many of the sport's top athletes shunned the games, saying they were too structured and run by people who did not understand what was in the best interest of their burgeoning, alternative sport.

Like skateboarding, snowboarding is a pastime that grew and thrived in a subculture that valued independent expression, alternative fashions and rejection of authority. It didn't help that when the International Olympic Committee added snowboarding to the games, it was under the auspices of the FIS (the International Ski Federation), rather than snowboarders' own International Snowboard Federation.

Though it rained at that first snowboard halfpipe in Nagano, subsequent Olympics have seen snowboarding get bigger and bigger. The FIS remains in charge, but has gained increasing credibility since some of the best young snowboarders showed up for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and American riders swept the medals.

"Nagano was kind of a nightmare ... but Park City was a huge turnaround, Burton said. "The level of riding was insane and the sweep was something pretty special.

This year, White, overwhelmingly considered the world's best halfpipe snowboarder, was in tears, with an American flag draped around his shoulders after he won his first Olympics title. And his toughest competition was also there, with American Danny Kass winning silver and Markku Koski of Finland taking bronze.

"These kids at the Olympic village wear all their (national team) stuff every day, Keene said. "They love it. They're trading pins. They're wearing their flags. They're wearing their uniforms. Right now there's only four guys from the U.S. who can do that and they're here doing it because they can.

And there in the background was Burton, enjoying his sport's ongoing flirtation with the mainstream.

"A lot of people sort of say, 'I miss the old days,' and I'm just not one of them, Burton said. "That equipment sucked (that) we used to ride, you couldn't go to all the mountains. There weren't as many women riding. As long as the (snowboarding) magazines don't start writing about the food at the resorts and stay focused on the riding, and if companies like us remember that and listen to the people that are ripping the hardest, I think we'll be all rightt.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press

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