Is slopestyle the future for British snowsport?

By Graham BellSki Sunday presenter
There are dry slopes and indoor snowdomes across the UK where you can start as a beginner, try out tricks and even get started on your own Olympic journey.

When I was a downhill ski racer, slopestyle didn't exist.

Freestyle snowsport was a niche, underground scene that was too unstructured, too anti-establishment, too cool almost for the Olympics.

Competitively, it was all about alpine.

It is now 16 years since my fifth and final Winter Olympics as a ski racer and the scenery has changed dramatically.

Alpine may be the traditional heartbeat of snowsport, but the closest Great Britain have ever come to a medal in skiing or snowboarding was at Salt Lake City in 2002, when Alain Baxter's slalom bronze medal had to be returned after a controversial failed drugs test.

After the successful incorporation of snowboard cross and ski cross over the last two Winter Olympics, the addition of slopestyle at the Sochi Games finally gives us genuine GB medal hopes on snow.

In a film I've made for Ski Sunday, I've been looking at why that might be, and the good news is it appears the GB freestyle team is only going to get stronger.

Visiting the site of where he first hit the slopes, Woods took the rare opportunity to catch up with some old friends and share his ambitions for the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi 2014.

The reason? Firstly, slopestyle will be in the spotlight in Sochi - with its combination of massive kickers, rails and boxes, it's a creative, exhilarating and dynamic event that will grab everyone's attention.

And in James Woods,Katie Summerhayes,Jenny Jones and Billy Morgan, we have at least four athletes who could make the podium.

It's heartening that those riders have risen to the top of their sport before slopestyle has made its Olympic debut. And it's the nature of their event that could see elite numbers grow in Britain in the coming years.

Before Christmas, I went to the Castleford Xscape indoor snowdome in West Yorkshire for their twice-monthly Freestyle Friday night.

The hill was dotted with rails, tubes and boxes, features that can easily be put out at facilities here in the UK. You don't need a big mountain and you don't need real snow, as you do to develop in ski racing at elite level.

Pat Sharples, coach to Woods and Summerhayes, told me you can learn to ride features to international competition level on the facilities we have here.

In fact, all of the GB freestyle skiers and snowboarders going to Sochi started on either dry slopes or indoor domes in the UK.

The most positive thing about my evening in Castleford was that it was really busy. There was a real mix of skiers and snowboarders, youngsters and older riders, all of them pushing each other to improve.

You could see them progressing in front of you - one kid would try a trick, their friends would copy or try to better them. It was a friendly atmosphere, not intimidating or overly competitive, just a great environment to improve in.

Every sport needs high participation numbers at the bottom to drive improvement and subsequently results at elite level.

I really hope that's what I was witnessing in Yorkshire.

A couple of years ago on Ski Sunday, I returned to the Cairngorms in Scotland to meet my first coach Hans Kuval. Hans reminded me that when my brother Martin and I were kids, the Scottish Ski School had anywhere between 100 and 150 children racing across different ages.

Ski Sunday in Scotland 2012

There's nothing quite like sibling rivalry to push you on - I don't deny that my greatest motivation was beating my brother. However, having so many fellow competitors made us both race faster.

When I returned to Scotland in 2012, numbers had fallen - there were about 40-50 in the club training.

It pains me to say it, but I wonder if it's more than coincidence that in the past five years, only Chemmy Alcott has consistently performed at the top of alpine skiing.

Worryingly, beyond Chemmy, only slalom racer Dave Ryding looks capable of gaining solid top 30 World Cup results. His title victory in the second-tier Europa Cup last year was a notable achievement.

Unfortunately, Britain's ski racing cupboard looks pretty bare, and with Chemmy nearing retirement after her recent injuries, results might get worse before they get better.

It's not all doom and gloom though, and I'm certain ski racing has a future in Britain, although the pathway to success could now be through alpine-based schools.

Wherever you're from, the downhill remains the blue riband event of the Winter Olympics, and I can testify to the addictive thrill of raw speed.

However, it's easy to see the appeal of freestyle. There is common ground in culture and fashion with popular sports like skateboarding and BMX.

And at elite level, there's no doubt that currently it's a lot easier to break through in freestyle snowsport.

The competition is not as established, and in slopestyle we have a discipline where athletes can develop their abilities to a really high standard without having to train abroad.

My heart will always be in ski racing, but if this new event gives Britain its first Olympic medal on snow, who am I to argue?

And if that results in more people putting on a set of skis or a snowboard, it can only be a good thing.

If you want to try skiing or snowboarding, click hereexternal-link to find your nearest slope.