The day after the Super Bowl in 2018, I began a 24-hour journey to South Korea to cover the Winter Olympics for the Globe.
Throughout the trip, something was nagging the heck out of me. I had collaborated with longtime Globe Olympics writer John Powers, one of the world’s most prominent Olympics journalists, on a story in which we ranked the Winter Olympics sports. We’d left it in the system for the editors to use while we traveled to PyeongChang and got settled.
The more I thought about the list, though, the more I worried we placed snowboarding too low. Originally, it was ranked sixth, behind Alpine skiing, figure skating, freestyle skiing, short-track speedskating, and hockey. After finally reaching the condo I’d live in for three weeks, and recovering from the trip, I decided to e-mail John to discuss changing our list before it was published.
I had been reading a ton about the upcoming Olympics, and at every turn, I became more convinced that snowboarding in all its forms — including halfpipe, big air, and slopestyle — was going to be incredibly popular at these Games.
John agreed that the right thing to do was make a switch. We elevated snowboarding to third, and dropped freestyle skiing to sixth. The article was published, and the next day, I awoke to an e-mail with the subject line, “Note from Jake Burton.”
“It is newsworthy that you rated the viewability of Olympic sports, and cool that you put snowboarding on the podium [3rd place],” he wrote. “That said, snowboarding should, for sure have been on the top of your list.
“Consider the fact that this sport was pioneered in New England, New Englanders have won a plethora of gold medals and it is one of the few Winter Olympic sports that Americans have ever swept the podium. Not to mention, the energy that snowboarding brings to the Olympic stage is infectious.
“While our sport may appeal to a younger demographic, and for some our lexicon is hard to understand, maybe by watching people will get younger, learn some new vocabulary, and be inspired to get on the mountain themselves.”
It’s common to receive all sorts of feedback on stories, especially lists — and man, did we hear it from the cross-country crowd after ranking that sport last — but Burton’s comments stood out. They were thoughtful and well-reasoned, even as he expressed his disagreement.
On Thursday, I could not stop thinking about that interaction with Burton after Dolbashian reached out to me to share the news that Burton, whose full name was Jake Burton Carpenter, had died of complications from testicular cancer at age 65.
Snowboarding’s devotees have been staunch defenders of the sport from its earliest days, when they were often viewed as the outlaws of the slopes, ruining everything for skiers. To this day, there are mountains that ban snowboarders. Burton championed snowboarding then, and on the eve of the 2018 Olympics, he did it again. It made complete sense, and I was impressed.
Throughout those Olympics, what Burton suggested regarding snowboarding’s place on the Olympic stage came to mind again and again, as we watched Chloe Kim and Shaun White lead an American assault on the snowboarding medals stand. Four of the US’s nine golds came in snowboarding. Czech snowboarder Esther Ledecka even clicked into a pair of skis and won the women’s Super-G ski race before winning snowboarding gold in parallel slalom.
The excitement level for snowboarding at the PyeongChang Olympics was over the top. Everyone was talking about it, and the drama, the death-defying athletes, and colorful personalities made it one of the real highlights of the Games.
I never did meet Jake Burton, despite invitations to get together at his beloved Stowe in Vermont and to visit the Burton Snowboard Co. facilities, but I really wish I had been able to. At the time, I responded to his note by thanking him for sharing his opinion, and assuring him that we’d keep a close eye on snowboarding to better inform us if we decided to revisit the rankings before the next Olympics.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have liked to tell him one thing.
He was right.