When Shaun White declared he was withdrawing from the Sochi Olympic slopestyle snowboarding competition because the course is too dangerous, his critics in the sport scoffed and said White has become conservative in his old age.
But what White really decided was to cut his losses and protect his brand. He played it savvy — not usually an admired attribute in the go-for-the-gusto snowboarding subculture.
So fans and opponents will be denied the sight of White riding rails and catapulting off jumps, but the halfpipe maestro will preserve his superior shot at a third consecutive gold medal in the event he has made into his trademark.
White is no longer known as the “Flying Tomato.” He cut his Bozo-length red hair, cleaned up his off-snow reputation and became CEO of his apparel, equipment and endorsement empire, Shaun White Enterprises.
White is no longer the teen snowboarding and skateboarding phenom who popularized the X Games and an accompanying lifestyle best summarized as, Stay Stoked!
White is 27, seriously grown up in snowboarding years. His biggest rivals are Mark McMorris, 20, and Ayumu Hirano, 15. He recently bought a $9 million house in Malibu, Calif. He wears a Target logo to promote his clothing line. He staged his announcement about bypassing slopestyle on the Today show. How square is that?
White, in fact, made anti-establishment snowboarding into a mainstream sport. The International Olympic Committee might ask him to do the same for skateboarding. The IOC is so pleased with the White demographic that new extreme sports were added in time for Sochi, including slopestyle and halfpipe skiing.
White was to be a big attraction in his quest for double gold at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. But on Wednesday he said he would skip Saturday’s slopestyle debut to concentrate on Tuesday’s halfpipe final, which he won in 2006 and 2010. He could become the first American male to win the same event in three consecutive Winter Games. There is much anticipation about the latest twist to his halfpipe routine — a frontside double-cork 1440 that adds an extra half revolution to the two flips of the Double McTwist 1260 he performed in Vancouver.
After jamming his wrist Tuesday on a fall on one of the steep takeoff ramps and observing other athletes’ wipeouts (Norway’s Torstein Horgmo broke a collarbone and Finn Marika Enne was treated for a concussion) on the challenging slopestyle course, White withdrew, prompting criticism that he was ducking competition because he realized he couldn’t win.
“I don’t think it’s dangerous,” McMorris said. “Snowboarding’s dangerous. But crossing the street is dangerous, too.”
White has been managing an ankle injury all season, injured his shoulder last month at Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and blackened an eye in a face plant last week at Copper Mountain in Colorado.
“With the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on,” he said Wednesday.
White was the underdog to McMorris, although McMorris cracked a rib at the X Games. The Canadian has mastered the 1440 triple cork maneuver while White has struggled to land it. White won five X Games titles in slopestyle and it was his first love as a kid, but he has focused on halfpipe in recent years. Juggling the two events this season was tougher than he expected.
“I wake up, ride the slopestyle, then cut over to pipe in the afternoon,” White said last month at an event in Breckenridge, Colo. “I’m getting really fit because of it. It brings out the best in me.”