PYEONGCHANG, South Korea >> At the Olympic snowboard events, the party-like atmosphere includes dance music booming in the background and loud gasps of “ooooh” and “ahhhh” from the lively crowds responding to every high-flying trick.
But when American Arielle Gold dropped into the halfpipe for her bronze medal-winning run, she didn’t hear any of it.
“I was listening to ‘8 Mile’ by Eminem,” she said after the race. “I always listen to Eminem when I’m snowboarding. I really like his lyrics. He fought an uphill battle, and sometimes it feels like that’s what I’m doing. He overcame, and I can do the same.”
Music has long had a place in Olympic competition. Michael Phelps was known for wearing headphones until the final seconds before jumping in the water. At the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, the British bobsled team repeatedly listened to Whitney Houston’s anthem “One Moment in Time” to inspire them to a bronze-medal finish.
But music has a unique role for snowboarders, many of whom not only listen to music to pump themselves up before the event, but also blast it during the actual competition to drown out the din around them. They listened last week during the halfpipe and slopestyle competitions, and they’ve been listening this week in the big air event.
Norwegian snowboarder Silje Norendal, who finished fourth in the slopestyle competition and also competes in the big air event, said she leans toward dance music and songs that “you would only listen to when you were 10 years old.” One of her favorites is “Doctor Jones” by Danish Eurodance group Aqua. (She said the other members of the Norwegian team make fun of her “childish” song choices.)
“It just makes me relax,” Norendal said. “It brings me back to no worries and a really happy place. I don’t think about all the seriousness in competing and wanting to do really well.”
Kelly Clark of the United States, a five-time Olympian who finished fourth in the halfpipe competition here, said she uses music to drown everything else out and simplify her environment.
“I can’t control what the judges think or what the weather is doing or the tricks the other girls are doing,” Clark said. “But I can control what I hear.”
When Clark chooses her competition music, lyrics matter most. She prefers faith-based songs like “Love Has a Name” by Jesus Culture and “Pieces” by Bethel Music. During her 2014 bronze medal run in Sochi, she remembers listening to Hillsong United’s “The Stand.”
“‘So I’ll stand with arms high and heart abandoned,’” she said, repeating the song lyrics. “That line made the whole thing for me. That’s how I wanted to be at the Olympics.”
Ayumu Hirano of Japan, who won the silver medal in a dramatic finish of the men’s halfpipe competition, said music was an essential part of his competition planning.
“It keeps my motivation up, and it’s just as important to me as the snowboard,” he said through a spokesman. One of his favorite tunes to listen to during competition is Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”
“It calms me down,” he said.
Science is just beginning to catch up with what the snowboarders already seem to know about the link between music and athletic performance. Music, when combined with exercise, has been shown to delay fatigue and increase endurance, an effect similar to a performance-enhancing drug, said Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, who wrote the book “Applying Music in Exercise and Sport.”
Karageorghis has conducted a number of studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalogram to study the effect of music on physical performance. He has found that music can stimulate brain waves associated with arousal and alertness, and can alter the synchronization of powerful brain pulses associated with muscular activity. Music seems to block the brain’s natural signals when a body needs rest, which helps explain why some people can run or bike or ski faster and longer when listening to music.
“I can never reproduce in the laboratory what goes on in the hotbed of competition,” said Karageorghis. “But it does give us some good clues as to what happens neurophysiologically in the brain, and the influence of music. Using music to relieve anxiety, to lift confidence, to create your own bubble where you block out the competition hullabaloo and media expectations that go with it — that all can be very useful.”
Matthew Stork, a doctoral candidate in health and exercise sciences at the University of British Columbia, recently published a report in the Journal of Sport Sciences that showed people perform better in high-intensity interval workouts when they listen to music. Other research has shown that even in the resting state, the body’s heart rate and hormonal responses change when fast or slow music is played.
“I find it really fascinating when watching the Olympics and seeing snowboarders who have headphones on,” said Stork. “The reality is that music is so highly individualized. What gets one athlete going for one sport might have a completely different response for somebody else.”
In her first run in the halfpipe, American gold medalist Chloe Kim said she listened to “Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga, a song she said was “fun.” Liu Jiayu of China said she was listening to music when she put down her silver medal-winning performance. She didn’t remember which song was playing, but said her playlist only includes “songs that make me happy.”
Listening to music is not practical for many athletes, like speedskaters and ski racers, who need to hear their competition and the elements. But some freestyle skiers have also taken to listening to tunes while they compete. McRae Williams, an American freestyle skier, uses an iPod Shuffle during competition to listen to Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” or “The Message” by Nas.
“I have gone back and forth with it, and spent time not listening to music,” said Williams. “I realized how much it does help me. With all the chaos going on on top of the course, it helps me block everything else and get in my own little zone.”
But playing music during competition isn’t for everyone. Julia Marino, who is competing in big air, listens to classic rock songs like “Barracuda” by Heart before competing, but turns the music off during her runs.
Iouri Podladtchikov, the defending Olympic gold medalist who dropped out of the halfpipe competition because of an injury, said that before competing, he listens to “Human Cannonball” by Butthole Surfers “when my surroundings annoy me too much.”
But Podladtchikov, whose nickname is IPod, prefers a different type of soundtrack during competition. “I need to hear the snow,” he said.