There are a lot of skiing events at the Winter Olympics, not all of which require ski poles. But for the most part, all the skiers competing in a certain event either will or won’t have them. If you’re watching a cross-country race, for instance, you’re not going to see skiers plodding along sans poles—they use them for propulsion. Meanwhile, ski jumpers uniformly forgo the poles to improve their aerodynamics.
Tune into a freeskiing event, on the other hand, and you’ll likely notice a lack of consistency. Some freeskiers clutch poles; others don’t. Here’s why.
The sport began in the 1990s as an offshoot of freestyle skiing, which itself had only just recently debuted at the Olympics. Moguls—in which skiers race down an extremely bumpy slope, executing tricks along the way—was added as a medal event in 1992. Aerials—which entails launching yourself down a slope and off a steeply inclined jump so you can perform flips and twists in the air—followed in 1994. (Another event, ski cross, didn’t enter the Games until 2010.)
But some freestyle skiers, like Mike Douglas, felt constricted by rules governing which maneuvers they could and couldn’t do. They wanted the freedom that freestyle snowboarders had, and they wanted to exercise that freedom on courses usually reserved for snowboarders. This type of no-holds-barred, innovation-heavy skiing became known as freeskiing, which could loosely be described as “freestyle snowboarding, but on skis.” Two freeskiing events, halfpipe and slopestyle, debuted at the 2014 Sochi Games. A third event, big air freeskiing, just made its Olympic debut this year, following the successful addition of big air snowboarding back in 2018.
In keeping with the creative nature of the sport, freeskiers can choose whether to compete with poles. They don’t technically need them—the courses provide enough momentum alone—but poles can help with balance and landings. Their steadying force can sometimes be more mental than physical.
“The poles aren’t that much weight, but I feel for me it’s something to hold on to and squeeze for pressure and nerves and everything that you don’t see,” Team USA’s Devin Logan, who won the slopestyle silver medal in Sochi, told USA Today.
The liberty to ditch the poles does offer a couple definitive advantages. For one, freeskiers with hand injuries don’t have to drop out of competitions just because they can’t hold their poles. Eileen Gu—who won the gold medal for big air earlier this week—went pole-less for the 2021 freeski world championships because she was nursing a broken hand and a broken finger. (She clinched the halfpipe title.) Having free hands also makes it easier to execute grabs in the air (when athletes grab their skis mid-maneuver). That said, it’s also especially obvious when you miss a grab, which hurts your score.
Some people think freeski runs simply look cooler when you’re carrying poles; others think the exact opposite. Some people think poles should be required; others think the exact opposite. Some say, at the very least, the decision to use or not use poles should be factored into the scoring system. In short, athletes and spectators alike have opposing opinions on the topic. But for now, freeskiers are free to follow their own instincts.