By Ethan Stone

Dear FIS officials and NOC members, I wrote this article based on information I found online and the guesses I made from it. It is by no means fact-checked for accuracy. I welcome any corrections, please submit them in the comment section.

A lot of questions have been asked about the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. There have been the big questions about human rights, corruption, and terrorism in Russia, while among skiers a debate is flourishing about the meaning and effects of the Olympic debut of ski halfpipe and slopestyle.

There's no doubt about it—park skiing has picked a controversial Olympic Games for its controversial Olympic debut. But as questions about Sochi continue to circulate, a simpler question is now looming for the world's top competitive park and pipe skiers: who's going?

This weekend skiers are convening in two different places—Park City, Utah and Gstaad, Switzerland—in a last-ditch effort to get to the Olympics. Two back-to-back Grand Prix in Park City and a World Cup Slopestyle event in Gstaad might be the chance for a few lucky competitors to win their tickets to Sochi.

The Basics

Although the qualification system is complicated, one thing is clear: getting into the Olympic halfpipe or slopestyle competitions is no easy task.

The basic FIS requirement for eligibility is a top-30 finish in any World Cup event held between July 2012 and January 19, 2014, or at the 2013 World Championships, as well as a minimum of 80 FIS points for halfpipe competitors, or 50 FIS points for slopestyle competitors.

These requirements have been met by more than enough riders to make things interesting. Nine World Cup halfpipe events and eight World Cup slopestyles have been organized by FIS in the past 2 years in locations as varied as Ushuaia, Argentina and Sierra Nevada, Spain. Although slopestyle and halfpipe's transformation into World Cups event have been plagued by bad weather, controversial judging, and the chronic inability to build adequate courses, there remains little doubt that the top finishers at each event still proved their mettle in whichever conditions they had to ski.

But the Olympic halfpipe and slopestyle events in Sochi are also limited to 30 male and 24 female competitors each. A maximum of 108 freeskiers will be able to compete.

According to FIS regulations and Olympic policy, those 108 spots will be distributed amongst countries according to something called the Olympic Quota Allocation List.

The Olympic Quota Allocation List, as far as I can tell, is some kind of aggregate of World Cup contest results from July 2012 through January 19, 2014. It includes the results from all of the World Cup contests that have taken place since July 2012, as well as the 2013 World Championships in Norway. The official Quota Allocation List will be released on January 20 (although Wikipedia's got an unofficial one).

FIS uses the Quota Allocation List to dole out the Olympic spots or "quotas" out to countries' National Olympic Committees (NOCs) based on each country's athletes' rankings on the Quota Allocation List. Each country can receive a maximum of four quotas for each event.

Once a country has received its maximum number of quotas in an event, any extra quotas are distributed to the next eligible country.

For example: Nine of the top thirty World Cup men's slopestyle scores since July 2012 have been posted by Americans. If it weren't for the "four-per-country" rule, those guys would have earned nine quotas for the USA in the men's slopestyle event in Sochi.

But since each country is limited to four spots per event, the extra quotas are passed on to the next country on the list—a country that hasn't maxed out its quotas in that event yet, and maybe hasn't received one yet at all. A country hungry for quotas, like the Czech Republic, Austria, South Korea, or the Netherlands.

Countries Come First

Quotas are distributed to National Olympic Committees, not to individual athletes. Even though a particular athlete's results in the past year may have earned his or her country a quota, it's no guarantee that his NOC will actually give him or her that spot.

In other words: Tom Wallisch's results in the World Cup in the past two seasons (including his first-place score of 94.8 at the Freestyle World Championships in Voss, Norway last year) will doubtless earn the USA a quota for men's slopestyle. But the quota isn't given straight to Wallisch—it's given to the United States Olympic Committee, which has its own rules for distributing its quotas.

Each country has its own method of determining which athletes will fill their quotas and represent them at the Games. A country with only one quota in an event might give it to whoever who fulfills the basic FIS requirements for Olympic eligibility.

But countries with a surplus of qualified skiers—like the USA, Canada, Switzerland and Norway—have to figure out who gets their quotas, and who has to stay home and watch on TV.

For example, U.S. Freeskiing chose five "selection events" to determine the makeup of its slope and pipe teams. The American team will be based on results from the Dew Tour in Breckenridge and four Grand Prix stops at Copper Mountain, Northstar (relocated to Breckenridge), and Park City, which is hosting back-to-back Grand Prix events this weekend.

These events are thus of huge importance for would-be U.S. Olympians, which is why Park City is swarming with them this weekend, even while the last World Cup slopestyle event goes down in Gstaad, Switzerland remarkably devoid of Americans. Any U.S. athlete looking to get on the team has by now already earned the required FIS points and World Cup top-30 placement, and is now doing his or her best to post big results at the Grand Prix.

By contrast, why isn't Great Britain's James Woods at the Grand Prix? He doesn't need to be. Britain's Olympic committee has picked other events for its selection criteria (FIS World Cups, the Dew Tour, and the X Games), and Woodsy has already qualified for the British team based on his results there.

Different countries have different rules, but the ability to get onto podiums regularly is a common theme in the international selection criteria. Based on the start list in Gstaad, it's a fair guess that the Slopestyle event currently taking place there is a factor in the selection of the teams of several European countries. And the results in Gstaad will be calculated into the Olympic Quota Allocation List—meaning that outstanding athletes there might earn another quota for their country, as well as eligibility for themselves.

More Rules

Want to get even more complex? Let's go there. The next factor to count in is that each NOC can only send a maximum of 26 athletes on their freestyle team (with a maximum of 14 men or 14 women on the team).

A country's "freestyle team" according to FIS, if you didn't know, is now a hodgepodge collection of five disciplines: Moguls, Aerials, Skiercross, Halfpipe, and Slopestyle.

For most countries, the 26-athlete limit doesn't mean much—they probably won't receive enough quotas to fill all 26 spots anyway.

But freestyle-heavy countries like Canada and the U.S.A. who receive full quotas for multiple events have some picking and choosing to do.

Canada is currently slated to receive a total of 33 quotas: 4 spots each for men and women in moguls; 3 men's and 1 women's spot in aerials; four spots each in skicross; 4 men's and 3 women's spots in halfpipe; and two men's and four women's spots in slopestyle.

But Canada's freestyle team can't be that big, so its NOC will have to choose which spots to fill and which to leave empty in order to cut its team down to 26 athletes. Those decisions will likely be based on the strength of its particular teams and individual athletes.

If Canada's Olympic committee thinks that it's more likely to get a medal in women's moguls than in men's skicross, it'll fill all four quotas for the first event, but not all four in the latter. So just because a country gets a quota, doesn't mean it can use it.

Any unused quota then becomes available to the next country on the list. When the final Olympic Quota Allocation List is released on January 20, 2014, FIS will allocate the quota places to the national committees. The NOCs will have until January 22 to decide how to use their quotas. FIS then has until January 24 to re-allocate quotas depending on how the NOCs choose to use them.

As it stands today, the United States is the likely the only country that will receive the maximum number of quotas for slopestyle and halfpipe. And according to XGames.com, the U.S. plans to fill all of those slope and pipe quotas—meaning it will have to leave other quotas in aerials, moguls and skiercross unused in order to limit its freestyle team to 26 members.

Anyhow, that's a basic breakdown of freeskiing Olympic qualification. Confusing, isn't it? No wonder freeskiing's founding fathers ditched the Olympics — right?

Resources:

FIS: Freestyle Skiing Qualification Systems for XXII Olympic Winter Games, Sochi 2014 (PDF)

Wikipedia: Freestyle skiing at the 2014 Winter Olympics

XGames.com US Team rankings list

AFP: Your Guide to Making the Olympic Team


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