He became such a phenom on the European freestyle circuit that Norway's top rider, Einar Lofthus, took him on as a protégé. Haakonsen effortlessly mastered the gnarliest half-pipe tricks, from the Cabalerial (a 360-degree turn starting fakey and landing forward) to the McTwist (a backflip with a 540). In 1990, at the maddeningly precocious age of 15, he placed fifth at the world championships. Two years later he won it all. "Terje has become the Michael Jordan of snow-boarding," says Todd Richards, the reigning U.S. Open king and America's best hope in the half-pipe. "Depending on his mood, he'll put in the most amazing runs. He does what he wants to when he wants to, knowing that he can win whenever he wants to."
At times Haakonsen doesn't seem to want to. Most half-pipe meets are judged somewhat the way figure skating is (with points awarded for various maneuvers), but there's a crucial difference: If a snowboarder falls, he is out. That prompts many riders to load up on the standard moves. Not Haakonsen, who often goes straight to never-before-attempted jumps. "For me, it's not that important to count points," he says. "I don't need to win titles or be Number 1. I just need to please myself."
When not shredding the world's slopes or surfing its swells—he spends the off-season in Laguna Beach, Calif.—Haakonsen happily slashes away at those he sees as bores and pious ninnies. He likens Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the Internationale Olympic Committee, to Al Capone. He compares the Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS), the organization that the IOC chose to oversee Olympic snowboarding, to Capone's Chicago mob. Until now, Haakonsen has ridden almost exclusively in events sanctioned by the FIS's more talent-rich rival, the International Snowboard Federation, which was the sport's original governing body. "Instead of helping young riders get to another level," he charges, "the FIS is trying to use the Olympics as a stepping-stone to take over the sport."
In the end, though, Haakonsen isn't as concerned with power as with having fun, and the Olympics don't look like much fun to him. He chafes at the regimentation, the uniforms, the nationalism. "The Olympics may be ready for snowboarding, but the sport's organizers aren't ready for the Olympics," he says. "Their format hasn't caught up with the riders." In Nagano each of the 16 finalists will get two runs down the pipe. Haakonsen favors a so-called jam setup that would have seven or eight runs. "Having only two is boring for the spectators and means a lot of sitting around for the competitors," he says. "With more runs the action doesn't stop, and riders get to show more of their stuff."
Still, Haakonsen is under pressure from his sponsors and from the Norwegian snowboard federation to compete in the Games. Whether he will is unclear. Richards, for one, is aghast at the idea of an Olympics without Haakonsen. "If I won the gold medal, it would be by default," he says. "I would have been cheated out of the best competition."
Haakonsen needs one victory to qualify for the Olympics (unless Norway's coach decides to simply add him to the roster, which is permitted), and he says he may compete in a qualifying meet or two in January. "Or I may not," he says. "If I do go to Japan, I'm not going to have flags sewn on my clothes. And if I do well, I'm not going to run around waving a flag. Where I come from, nobody has national pride. I don't ride for my country. If I did win, I'd celebrate with my friends from Finland and California, not Norway. American riders are more into the whole Olympic thing. Personally, I think it's not a big deal."
It is to his buddy Eric Kotch. Last month the two sat around Kotch's Southern California beach house debating the pros and cons of participating in the Olympics. "If you don't go," said Kotch, "your protest will be noticed by a really small group—the tight community of snowboarders. But the average consumer who watches the Olympics on TV isn't going to know that the best rider protested the Games by not showing up. If you do go, and you win—which is probable—then you can stare straight into the TV cameras and say, 'This is all bulls—.' And people will have to listen to you."
Haakonsen smiled gently. "That would be perfect," he said. The eyebrows rose, and you could see the whites of his eyes more clearly. "But what if I finish second?"