PARK CITY, Utah -- If snowboarding really is all about image, then maybe the Olympics really do need a guy like Danny Kass.
He's a cherubic-faced 19-year-old who doesn't like the gym, lists the steak soft taco as his favorite health food and listens to music through his headphones while tearing down the halfpipe.
Most importantly, he is hip, an ultra-talented bad boy with the kind of image young snowboarders eat up, and the Olympics would like to project, too.
Like the other 57 riders who will hit the halfpipe Sunday and Monday, Kass is stoked to be here. But waxing poetic about the Olympics? Better go to somebody else for that.
"Some of my friends call the halfpipe the money pit," Kass said.
Actually, Kass concedes, most of his friends are happy he made it to the games. But it's that attitude - the notion that any rider who tries for the Olympics has sold out the sport's roots - that makes snowboarding what it is: a paradox of a sport that wants desperately to maintain its purity, but isn't afraid to make a buck or two while doing it.
Sound familiar? It's kind of what the Olympics have become over the years, even though snowboarding and Olympics have never fit hand in glove.
It has been a rocky relationship ever since the International Olympic Committee looked to the X-Games, and brought snowboarding on as its newest, hippest sport in 1998.
The most notable problem came when Canadian Ross Rebagliati, the 1998 gold medal winner, went through the embarrassing ordeal of having his medal stripped, then reinstated, after testing positive for marijuana.
It was the crowning symbol of the strife between the International Skiing Federation (FIS) that sanctions Olympic events and the International Snowboard Federation (ISF), the group that runs most events in the United States.
"I remember that at the time they brought snowboarding into the Olympics, it didn't come as great news to us," said Jake Burton Carpenter, a sponsor and pioneer of the sport. "The fact they hadn't talked to any of us in the industry made it even scarier. The sport was doing very well without it. We'd have been just as happy if it hadn't happened."
Over the ensuing four years, tensions have mellowed and rules that once banned crossover competitors between the FIS and ISF have been lifted.
Still, some differences remain. So does the notion among some snowboarders that their sport and the Olympics simply don't go together.
The man widely considered the best halfpipe rider in the world, Terje Haakonsen of Norway, is staying away for the second time. In the edition of Snowboarder magazine on newsstands this month, not a single Olympian could be found among its top 10 riders of the year.
"After it's all said and done, we're still all friends with those guys," says American rider Tricia Byrnes. "The Olympic thing just isn't their take. There is a core side of snowboarding, and they're not doing the same thing as we are. They're going after 15-year-old kids who want to like, break the law."
Those teen-agers love Kass. They love him for the way he gets bigger air and tries cooler tricks than everyone, including his signature Kasserole flip he'll try Monday. They love the way he insists he never plans a run, but simply heads down the chute and starts winging it. They love his bad-boy image, his sly sense of humor and the way he always keeps people guessing.
Was it really true, as he told reporters, that he had the heartfelt ballad "Yesterday" blaring through his headphones during a practice run Thursday? Only Kass knows for sure.
Believe him or not, there's no doubting he's a character. And he is good for this sport, simply because he brings with him a huge chunk of the young crowd that loves the X-Games but would never have thought of watching the Olympics, until now.
"He's the perfect guy, because he's just a punk kid and he's going to the Olympics," said 1998 bronze medalist Shannon Dunn.
He's also a lot more savvy than he likes to let on.
He owns a successful ski glove company, the logo of which he and his friends clandestinely spray paint onto the sides of buildings in the mountain towns where he competes.
He does work out, albeit not much, and mostly at home. He tries to maintain a good diet, but loves his fast food and his nightlife. "I'm not too crazy about veggies," he said.
The diet, the earphones, the workout schedule, his devil-may-care attitude about life: That all fits into the hip image snowboarding promotes, and the Olympics could use a taste of, too.
"Everyone loves that he's here, because he's not your typical guy," Dunn said. "And really, that's kind of what snowboarding is all about."
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