Origins: Snowboarding

This article has just appeared on Line-S, the Ski Club’s student website. Written by Clem Gray, who’s been writing for the Ski Club the past two winters, below is part three of her ‘Origins of Skiing’ series.

The history of snowboarding contains a concoction of rival forces; simmering with fierce competition, bans and insults. Yet conversely, this amalgamation of factors proved essential, driving inspiration and improvement to create snowboarding as the sport we know today. It’s a nascent sport, in juxtaposition to the prehistoric origins of skiing, snowboarding has only been around since the 1960’s. So where did snowboarding come from and why is rivalry synonymous with the sport?

If you’re a snowboarding fanatic, you’ll be familiar with Sherman Poppen’s “Snurfer”. Just before Christmas in 1965, American father Poppen bound together a pair of his daughter’s skis to create a board, that proved widely popular. It was a smorgasbord of surfing, skating and water skiing fused into a board for the snow. Within a year, the snurfer was the cynosure of all eyes, the hottest Christmas toy for 1966 priced at $15. One million were sold over the following 10 years.

Poppen and his “Snurfer”


Originally, the snurfers had no bindings. You just stood on the board and grabbed a lanyard attached to the front. As such, Poppen’s boards were banned on ski lifts, yet the sport was undisputedly very much in vogue; by 1968 the World Snurfing Championships began. Yet, the 1979 event held in Grand Rapids, Michigan presented a troubling maverick. A competitor, Jake Burton (founder of the global snowboarding company) turned up to compete on a board of his own design – with bindings. Officials allowed him to compete, but in a separate category to the regular snurfers. As the sole competitor, Burton won, and the race for binding and board experimentation commenced.

Burton and Sims


Before Biggie & Tupac, East Coast-West Coast rivalry was undertaken by two snowboard designers, the east coast resident, Jake Burton and west coast based, Tom Sims. These pioneers of snowboard design locked horns in a bitter war of bickering and competition. As Jake Burton later stated, ‘without Tom Sims to compete with in every sense, and vice versa, snowboarding wouldn’t be where it is today.”* The two poured ideas into the industry’s technology and design and consequently pushed constant innovation for snowboarding.

By 1985, the first World Cup was held in Zürs, Austria showcasing the sport’s international acclaim. However, it was only earlier in the decade that relentless lobbying by Burton, had persuaded ski resorts to open their lifts to snowboarders. Yet again, the sport faced more rivalry from fellow snow sports enthusiasts; the skiers. It became the trait of a snowboarder to berate a skier and visa versa. Skiers accusing snowboarders of ‘scraping’ the snow off the piste, whilst snowboarders tended to mock the one-piece sported so often in 1980’s.

Those 80’s ski suits…


Skiing was the domain of the wealthy, and ski resorts resisted the new sport as long as they could. Although now accepted worldwide, three American resorts still have a snowboarding ban. Snowboarders didn’t (or still don’t) fit the demographic typically exuded by skiers.

Realistically, the feuds drove snowboarding’s innovation, and the clash between ski/snowboard clans has died off with the older generation. Nowadays, many winter sports addicts are able to both ski and snowboard. The biggest daily dilemma for the modern snow sport fan is deciding whether to ride skis or board on the mountain. It’s a hard life indeed.

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