The definition of greatness in Olympic sports is typically revised every four years in increments so subtle they're barely perceptible to the human eye: A speedskater shaves one-hundredth of a second off the world record in the 10,000 meters, a high jumper clears another quarter-inch to flout the law of gravity again.
The sport of freestyle moguls, however, has been radically transformed since 2002, when the Olympic rulebook dictated that skiers remain upright as they performed two mandatory stunts while zipping down an icy mountain riddled with hills. At the 2006 Games, front- and back-flips not only will be allowed, they'll be expected of any moguls ace who presumes to strut out of Turin with an Olympic medal around his or her neck.
No one deserves more credit for this freestyle revolution than 1998 gold medalist Jonny Moseley, who, with ingenuity, pluck and a touch of arrogance invented a stunt for the 2002 Games expressly to challenge what he viewed as the antiquated rule that was stifling the sport's creativity. As might have been anticipated, Olympic judges rewarded Moseley and his signature "Dinner Roll" stunt with an icy embrace, placing him fourth -- better than 95 percent of competitors, but not good enough to warrant a medal. But less than six months later, they conceded Moseley's philosophical point and tossed out the prohibition of "off-axis" or inverted tricks.
Freestyle moguls hasn't been the same since.
"Everybody's going upside down now, and Jonny Moseley kind of started that," says Scott Rawles, 46, assistant moguls coach of the U.S. ski team. "It's really going to be eye-opening for everybody who watched our sport four years ago."
Adds NBC commentator Trace Worthington, the 1995 combined Worlds and World Cup champion (in aerials, moguls and ballet): "It put the 'free' back into 'freestyle.' It's more creative. It weeds out a lot of the traditional, robotic-looking moguls skiers, and throws in a lot of flair. And that's what freestyle is: You're supposed to create new tricks with your body when you're training."
While Moseley was shut out of the medals, his performance at Salt Lake drew a thunderous ovation from his peers. He was hardly the only Olympic skier capable of doing a Dinner Roll -- a sideways spin in which the feet are parallel to the head (thereby straddling the Olympic ban on stunts in which the feet are above the head). What made Moseley unique is that he was the only Olympian willing to risk not winning a medal for the sake of challenging the rule.
"The Dinner Roll was awesome!" gushes Travis Cabral, 22, among the moguls specialists who'll be vying for a spot on the 2006 U.S. freestyle team this weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y. "The thing Jonny really wanted to push was getting these new tricks into the sport. And the only way he could figure out how to do it was to do it, whether you guys like it or not. It wasn't in-your-face as far as a bad thing. It was, 'Take it or leave it.' He might have not have won the gold medal either way, but the fact that he went out there and did it just to make a point, he made our sport all of the sudden step higher."
Now 30, Moseley has retired from competitive skiing and is finishing his degree in American Studies at Cal-Berkeley while hosting a radio show on Sirius. Reached by telephone, he acknowledged taking a measure of pride in spurring the sport's development. "Only time will tell," Moseley said, "but I do feel like I've been recognized as the guy who opened the door. That feels great. That makes up for the medal I didn't get."
Whether the stunts are upright or upside down, freestyle moguls is thrilling to behold. Skiers top 35 mph while zigzagging down a mountain, knees locked tight and chattering up and down as they bounce over the bumps. En route they launch themselves 15 to 25 feet in the air and do a trick -- ideally without losing time or rhythm -- then plop back on course, continue skiing and take flight again. It exacts a brutal toll on the knees and back, yet grace and style are figured in the score, along with the skier's time.
But in the view of many young skiers, freestyle moguls had grown stale by the late 1990s -- particularly compared with snowboarding and freestyle aerials, in which X-Games champions and terrain-park daredevils flaunted high-flying moves and wild somersaults that made up-right mogulists look like throwbacks.
Not everyone cheered the movement to push the boundaries. Some argued moguls skiers shouldn't try off-axis tricks because it was too dangerous; children would get hurt trying to copy the pros on TV. Others argued that it blurred the line between moguls and aerials; only aerialists, they argued, should be allowed to flip.
Worthington scoffs at the arguments, particularly the one about safety. "That's like telling [four-time NASCAR champion) Jeff Gordon to slow down in an auto race because you're going to send the wrong message to the kids," he says.
In performing his Dinner Roll at Salt Lake, Moseley took a calculated risk. He had won gold at the 1998 Nagano Games with a revolutionary 360 Mute Grab, in which he spun around upright with his skis crossed, then paused midair to grab his left ski. With an international reputation and a gold medal in his back pocket, he was willing to gamble he could persuade the judges to think beyond the rulebook's limitations.
He calculated wrong. Judges either refused or weren't sure how to acknowledge the trick's difficulty, giving it the same base point value as the toughest upright move, even though it was far more difficult. Then they declined to add enough additional points for style to put Moseley onto the medal podium.
Worthington argues the judges were correct. Given the 2002 rulebook, he says, they had little choice but to grant the top scores to the athletes who had trained and performed under those rules. But he suspects that at least some judges applauded the line Moseley crossed that day, as evidenced by their decision to drop the rule. Certainly fellow skiers applauded it.
"There was probably not one soul out there that was looking at Jonny and thinking, 'What an idiot!' " Worthington said. "We already idolized him. And now we really thought he was cool!"
Says Moseley: "There's no question I was making a point; I was making a statement. I had hoped to be able to both make a statement and win, but in the end I probably sacrificed a gold for a statement. I hate to sound like I did everything for the good of the sport. I just personally couldn't swallow the idea of going up there and doing what every single other person was doing. It wasn't worth abandoning innovation and abandoning what is possible."