When it comes to skiing a half-pipe, or launching a double cork 1080 on a snowboard, the kids are better than all right. In both these events, in the space of two hours, New Zealand snaffled two bronze medals to showcase the true fearlessness of youth. Since its debut in the Winter Olympics at Oslo 1952, the country had been represented on the podium just once in 66 years. That was until the arid Kiwi record was shredded in a single morning – thanks to a pair of 16-year-olds.
First, Nico Porteous, a blur of nervous energy, staged an outrageous sequence of half-pipe stunts to finish third, despite admitting that he had vomited three times before competition due to the mounting tension. Then, Zoi Sadowski Synnott, over on the ‘big air’ ramp, pulled out her gaudiest party trick – a switch backside 900, since you ask – to reach the podium alongside Austria’s world and Olympic champion, Anna Gasser. Quite the feat, all told, for two debutants born in 2001.
Already, these Olympics have gifted us Chloe Kim, the 17-year-old US snowboarder so incorrigibly sassy that she spent the downtime between runs tweeting about her breakfast. Over on the slopestyle course, there was her compatriot Red Gerard, whose horizontally laid-back nature freed him up to become the first Winter Games gold medallist born this century. To no one’s great surprise, he has also qualified for tomorrow’s ‘big air’ final, despite taking a 15-hour flight to Los Angeles to run the gamut of late-night talk shows, and then zipping back across the Pacific to Pyeongchang.
What is going on? Why are these Games being overrun by athletes still ineligible to vote? One explanation is the increased preponderance in the Olympic programme of freestyle snow disciplines, where audacity is perhaps the most vital virtue. Kim, for example, has tricks in her armoury that her elder peers, for reasons of self-preservation, would not even dream of attempting.
But if you think she is fresh-faced, wait until you see Japan’s Kokomo Murase, who according to insiders is the finest female snowboarder in the world at 13. When she was just 12, Murase had already mastered the backside 1080, with three full revolutions and almost a blind take-off. It is a trick most professionals would be proud to call their own.
By any reckoning, 13 is too young to be thrust into the crucible of Olympic pressure. While Kim had the talent to represent the US at Sochi 2014, official age restrictions prevented her, a ruling that she has since come to regard as a blessing. “I was a little bummed out then, but now that I look back at it, I’m glad that I wasn’t old enough,” she said. “It’s too much stress for a 13-year-old.”
Just ask Vincent Zhou, already an American figure skating star at 17, who took to Instagram after a rare off-day in Grenoble three months ago to announce: “Smiling and waving while my heart is breaking is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
One worried a little on Thursday for the mental wellbeing of Porteous, who needed a sports psychologist with him at the top of the half-pipe, as the intensity of the moment hit home.
“The guy’s an absolute legend,” he said. “I was being sick with anxiety. I honestly don’t know why it went so well in the end – I haven’t got a clue. Maybe it was just meant to be. I’ve been a mixed bag of emotions lately, I haven’t really been getting much sleep. On the night of qualifying I didn’t fall asleep until 4am. I’ve been all over the show.”
At Porteous’ age, the lack of shut-eye is unlikely to be a significant hindrance. After all, Gerard has traversed 7,000 miles of ocean, twice, since seizing his gold, while showing no drop-off in performance upon his return. There is, however, a thinly-veiled streak of emotional vulnerability, with Porteous deciding just to ski through his third and final run, accepting that there was virtually no chance of improving his medal-winning score of 94.80. As for a celebration, he insisted he would restrict himself to a “quiet one with the family”. Conscientious, these millennials. On the slopes, however, Pyeongchang has been a place for teenage kicks galore.