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Snowboarding's visionary likes what he sees

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Lots of people like to say they were there at the beginning.

Jake Burton really was.

The man who had a feeling the snowboard could provide more than merely a way to pass time and save money on the back hills now sees his name on those boards at pretty much every ski resort in America.

He watches one of his proteges, Shaun White, making millions and dominating the pro scene. He hears the old debate — the discussion about whether snowboarding really belongs in the mainstream — being replaced by more relevant topics. All in all, he likes the landscape he sees, as snowboarding gets ready for its fourth Olympics — more than three decades after Burton made a business out of the so-called lifestyle sport.

"For a while there, snowboarding got a little bit too much of, sort of, 'I'm better than you,' and there was sort of a hierarchy," Burton said last weekend at the Winter X Games. "Now, I just think it's much more pure. Everyone from the kids to the best riders in the world, they're clearly having the time of their lives."

Having a good time: That was the backbone of snowboarding, from the time Sherman Poppen rigged together two skis and a rope to make what he called a Snurfer in 1965, to when Burton quit his job in Manhattan a dozen years later to advance the concept and bring the boards to the masses.

The ability for elite riders to "have fun" and keep things pure while they were competing for gold medals and fame has long been the central dilemma for a sport that waged both internal and external battles over its trajectory into the mainstream.

For decades, ski resorts rejected snowboarders as reckless, stoners and neer-do-wells. (And possibly, quite possibly, because they didn't spend enough.)

"I remember going to the contests, them handing us a shovel and saying, 'go ahead,' and we'd start digging out the halfpipe," said Seth Wescott, the defending Olympic champion in snowboardcross.

Also for decades, snowboarders chafed at the thought of having outside forces, mainly from the buttoned-down skiing world, telling them how to run their competitions.

These days, many of the old debates are fading, in part because the biggest stars of the sport have largely embraced where the sport has gone.

"When I started, it was a small pack of people," said Shaun Palmer, one of the first to bring it to the masses in the 1990s. "You saw a snowboard on a car, you knew who it was. We weren't allowed on a ski lift. It's cool to see it like it is now."

The next big issue, it seems, will be how much is too much.

White, with his long, red hair and breezy, engaging personality, has raised the bar for snowboarding but also found himself alienated from some of his fellow competitors, who make only a fraction of his estimated $9 million a year. (A good portion of which comes from Burton's company.)

"He's so into it, though," Burton said. "You really get the feeling that if the whole thing went away and there wasn't a penny in it, he'd be doing it. It's the fact that he's so easygoing and so clearly enjoying the whole process. That's why he connects with people."

There is also a rapidly evolving danger component to the sport — both on the wipeout-filled snowboardcross courses and on the halfpipe, where White's multi-flipping, multi-twisting Double McTwist 1260 is the trick that will win — or lose — the Olympic gold medal.

Burton is convinced all these issues will sort themselves out the way most have over the years: The riders will figure it out.

"If the sport got to the point where halfpipe riding became really dangerous, I think riders would do something about it," he said. "It wouldn't be cool anymore. Then something would have to happen and something would have to be tweaked."

For Exhibit A, Burton brings up the example of early snowboardcross courses, which were built by amateurs using relatively unsophisticated equipment. They were much more dangerous than they are today. Riders called them the "ring of fire," and many walked away and moved toward the halfpipe.

This isn't to say Burton believes lassiez faire is always the way to go.

He was in the middle of the angst back in 1998, when snowboarding was introduced to the Olympics against the wishes of many of the top riders.

Some memories from Nagano included the misspelling of the actual word on the Olympic scoreboard: "Sno-boarding." And one day, race officials watered down the giant slalom course — something that may be acceptable for skiers, but not for snowboarders — then did nothing after it snowed on top of the surface and riders couldn't see the glassy surface beneath.

Burton decided to get more involved at every level of the sport — publically and behind the scenes. Four years later, at the Salt Lake City Olympics, snowboarding had what is widely thought of as its greatest day — an American sweep on the halfpipe in front of about 30,000 fans, many of whom moved down the mountain to watch when Alpine events were canceled.

Since then, White has burgeoned into a star, snowboarding has become an accepted part of the mountain culture, and Burton's company has prospered. The red, white and blue plaid uniforms the U.S. Olympic snowboard team wears in Vancouver — that's a Burton design, as are the majority of the snowboards now seen at hundreds of resorts across America.

Burton is estimated to have between 40 and 70 percent of a market, depending on the sector, that's valued at somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion each year, depending on whether you include apparel in the math. Just as significantly in an era of boom and bust, Burton's company has never grown by more than 100 percent in a single year.

He likes that his company, and his sport, has been on a much more steady, consistent path than, say, the dot.com companies that sprouted up and were run by the younger generation — much the way snowboarding evolved — in the 1990s and early 2000s.

"I had a vision there was a sport there, that it was more than just a sledding thing, which is all it was then," Burton said. "I had no clue whatsoever that you'd be building parks and halfpipes and that kind of thing. I'm happy about that. I've been incredibly fortunate. Sure, I've gotten jaded in many ways, but it's never felt out of my reach. We're doing something that's going to last here. It's not like just hitting the lottery one day."