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Twenty-five years ago, the Swedish snowboarder broke a world record with this enormous backside air. But is it still that big a deal, asks Andrew Duthie? 

snowboarder-in-the-mountains
Photo: iStock_ViewApart

Mention ‘Ingemar at Riks’ to a snowboarder, and it’ll almost certainly be met with one of three responses: starry-eyed delight, eye-roll, or quizzical stare. It just depends which camp they’re in. My own reaction (for now, at least) is the former, despite the fact that I didn’t even snowboard for the first time until three years after that fateful afternoon in 1996. The ripples were still being felt, and nothing that had happened since - including the sport’s Olympic debut in 1998 - had enjoyed a similar impact. It therefore wasn’t long before that photo had appeared on my radar.

Here’s the story behind the shot: a late-season contest near the border between Sweden and Norway had attracted some of snowboarding’s brightest talents. On his native soil, Backman staked a claim as the first-among-equals with a jaw-droppingly gigantic backside air. Calle Eriksson’s camera captured the feat with an image that remains one of the most iconic in the sport’s history, and which appeared on the cover of countless snowboard magazines around the world.

So why, you may ask, would anyone take issue with being reminded of such a significant moment? One member of the eye-swivelling camp (only a few years my junior, but about a decade behind in picking up a board) recently put it to me that if you strip the footage of Backman’s Giant Leap for Snowboardkind of its nostalgia value, what’s left is actually pretty sketchy. While the photo is undeniably a banger, the clip reveals that Backman seriously winds the windows on his way back to earth, before touching down with all the grace of the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs.

None of that is bad in itself, especially once furnished with crucial context. Backman’s fellow pros, many of whom ranked among the best in the world, weren’t getting anywhere near to how high he’d gone that day; he had essentially redefined what was possible. A trip to the nearest hospital was a far more likely outcome for Backman than snowboarding immortality, especially given the hastily hand-dug nature of the take-off.

Ingemar-Backman-1996-Riksgränsen
Photo: Calle Eriksson

But even allowing for all that, the fetishisation of the Riksgransen backside air has been known to get a little intense. If you’d seen any of the sea of Instagram tributes in May 2021, marking 25 years since Backman went into orbit, you’d think this quiet Swede had pulled off a conjuring trick to rival the Feeding Of The Five Thousand. Over-mythologising a crowning achievement, no matter how impressive, can’t help but take the shine off it over time (see also: Wembley, 1966).

Then there’s the third lot: even with the anniversary bump, Backman’s feat may not even have registered with large swathes of the latest generation of snowboarders, no matter how keen they are. Getting the ‘cover shot’ is essentially a dead concept to them, superseded by the well-maintained Instagram feed. Unless they’ve also got a niche interest in moderately successful Swedish poker players, they might not have even heard of Backman.

Times will change, of course - but the notion that the Riksgransen air’s significance might be slipping away is far more distressing than having to listen to someone bang on about it for the nth time. This was a gloriously spontaneous moment; Backman wasn’t looking to bolster his video part, or feed his social media channels. He simply decided to drop in a little higher, and in doing so grabbed snowboarding by the scruff of the neck and heaved it forward. “It just came out of the blue… like Ingemar always does,” remembers Eriksson. “He keeps surprising people”.

By contrast, take a quick scan of other ‘major event’ tricks from recent years: the first triple cork, the first quadruple cork, and so on. Most have taken us further down the ‘more spins, more flips’ road, and have been achieved with the involvement of dedicated snow-moving teams, shapers and camera crews - all bankrolled by high-profile sponsors. Each time the pristine, polished Youtube video finally drops, the comments section ignites with mean-spirited debates about whether or not the latest ‘NBD’ (Never Been Done) is even welcome at all. 

Compare that to Backman’s moment of sky-scraping brilliance in the Swedish sun, which at the time was as universally adored as it was divinely inspired. It’s not impossible that we’ll see its like again - but a quarter-century later, we certainly haven’t yet.

On balance, when it inevitably gets brought up again, expect my eyes to remain in the forward position, and wide open.