David and Goliath
03/17/2016 16:00 ● Published by Dan Greeson
Justin Reiter competes in the 2009 LG Snowboarding World Cup in Landgraaf, Netherlands. The Parallel Giant Slalom event features two snowboarders racing at the same time down side-by-side- slalom courses. Competitors race twice, swapping courses on the second run, and the athlete with the fastest combined time from the two heats is the winner. Photo courtesy of Courtesy USSA/Oliver Krause.
By Dan Greeson
Steamboat Springs snowboarder Justin Reiter is facing his toughest competitor yet, but it’s not on the slopes – it’s in the courtroom. When the International Olympic Committee voted in 2015 to remove parallel snowboard racing from the Olympic Winter Games, Reiter did the only thing he could to fight back: he sued them.
Ever since Reiter snuck into a bar as a teenager to watch the 1998 Nagano Olympics, snowboarding has been his passion.
“I came to Steamboat in 2000 straight out of high school because I wanted to realize an Olympic dream that I’ve had since before snowboarding was even in the Olympics,” Reiter says.
When the U.S. team cut funding for his sport leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he lived out of his truck in Park City, Utah, and trained without a coach. He finally made his Olympic dream a reality in 2014 when he competed as the only U.S. athlete in the parallel giant slalom event in Sochi, Russia.
But Reiter’s Olympic career, and that of countless other snowboarders, is being unceremoniously cut short.
In August, the IOC announced its decision to remove parallel snowboard racing – an Olympic event since 2002 – from the 2018 and 2022 Winter Olympics. The committee said it wanted to focus on the crowd-pleasing snowboard big air discipline instead. Floored by the news, Reiter acted quickly and helped to form a multi-national group of snowboarders to retaliate. The group posted a petition on the website Change.org, pleading for the IOC to reverse its’ decision.
“We got 16,000 petition signatures from countries all over the world to try and stop it from being canceled,” he says. “But the IOC just completely turned a blind eye to it.”
Reiter did not give up. He put together a legal team and did something that no Olympic athlete has ever done before: he sued the IOC on behalf of his discipline.
“According to their own bylaws, the IOC can’t cancel an event within three years of the next Olympics,” Justin says. “Unfortunately I don’t believe the IOC represents what the Olympics stand for. They really display a disregard for the athletes overall.”
The IOC, Reiter says, has been able to ignore criticism and complaints from athletes because that is the way it has always operated. A victory for Reiter and his team would create a new precedent and a more powerful voice for Olympic athletes.
Reiter and his legal team won the first step of their battle in September 2015 when the Swiss Court (the IOC is based in Switzerland) approved the lawsuit and allowed it to move forward. Valuable ground was lost in January when the Swiss court denied Reiter and his lawyers expedited process. This means a longer and more taxing legal campaign than initially thought. The next stage is a waiting game for the lawsuit to go to trial.
Thedo Remmelink, Reiters’s snowboarding coach at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club since 2002, has been with him through most of his snowboarding career.
“He really has a good sense of justice,” Remmelink says. “Justin came to me, and he told me, ‘I need to do this.’”
Despite his devotion to justice, Reiter is still fighting an uphill battle in terms of funding.
“They’re a large organization, so they’ll try to make it as cost-prohibitive and time-prohibitive as possible for us,” Reiter says. “To deal with that part of it, we’ve got a crowd-funding page on RallyMe.com. All of the proceeds go toward funding the lawyers. I’m very lucky to have those guys in my life. They’re the real heroes.”
“Everybody in Steamboat who knows me has been extremely supportive,” Reiter says. “Whether someone gives $1, or whether it’s $100, every little bit helps. There’s a group of people in Steamboat Springs doing what they can to help and most importantly, spreading the facts about what’s really going on here.”
“It’s definitely hard on him,” Remmelink says. ““Of course, it’s not an easy goal, but he has what it takes. I admire Justin a lot for taking this on.”
Reiter admits that the legal battle has affected his performance on the slopes, but he never expected it to be easy.
“Carrying that extra weight is something I haven’t learned to navigate,” he says. “But I’m not putting my head down yet; I’m not giving up. This is something greater than me, so if I have to give up one season for this, so be it.
When people use words like “courageous” or “brave” to describe Reiter’s decision to challenge the IOC, his response is brief, humble and down-to-earth.
“I just saw a group that was doing something wrong, and I felt that doing the right thing was paramount,” he says. “To do what they did to a group of athletes is really a travesty.”