When snowboard superstar Shaun White decided to pull out of the slopestyle competition at the Sochi Winter Olympics, it made sense. He was getting banged up on the course, and while he’s always competed well in the event in the X Games, his primary focus was on a third-straight gold medal in the halfpipe.
Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. White won the qualifying run at Rosa Khutor, allowing him to skip straight to the final as expected. While he pulled off some signature big air in the final runs of the day, some sketchy landings cost him just as big. His 90.25 score in the last run of the night was good only for fourth. Not only was there no gold, there was no medal of any color.
The critics are going to have a field day with this, citing White’s focus on his “brand” as the determining factor. What they fail to realize is that the sport is only what it is today, a highlight of the Winter Olympics on par with any other event, because of White’s influence. When you hear about White possibly pulling out a 1440 flip, the question that immediately follows is, “can anybody else do it?” Now, more than ever, the answer is starting to be “yes.”
When Iouri Podladtchikov stunned the world by winning gold over the heavily-favored White, it wasn’t a sign of White’s failure nearly as much as it was the rest of the world catching up to him. Two Japanese riders, Ayumu Hirano and Taku Hiraoka, rounded out the podium, keeping the Americans out of the medals for the first time ever. Podlatchikov landed a new trick of his own, the “YOLO flip,” and he made the biggest impact of the event.
This year, he got beat, plain and simple. And while that’s going to be a disappointment for an intense competitor like White, it isn’t the end of the world. The mistakes he made weren’t massive, they were just enough to cost him a medal in one of the tightest halfpipe contests in Olympic history.
When history looks back on Shaun White, they’ll remember him for his innovation and the advancements he helped push the sport through, which may have ended up making his competitors that much better.