Snowboarding’s biggest superstar missed out on the podium during Tuesday’s men’s halfpipe competition in Sochi, Russia, by two points—and I bawled my eyes out. I am still crying. Not because I can’t believe he didn’t win, but because he really didn’t get the chance to prove his mettle—none of the Americans did. Shaun White didn’t throw his best tricks in extremely difficult conditions in a halfpipe that will likely go down as the sport’s worst in more than a decade.
I’m not taking anything away from the performances of the athletes who earned medals—they navigated that pipe with style and speed. Iouri Podladtchikov has been inches away from the top step of the podium many times and these Games, like with White, were his third. He debuted the Yolo flip last year in Europe, and White spent months attempting to perfect it. He deserved the gold medal, and his chance to shine. This also goes for Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, 15, whose silver medal performance proved he’s going to be a factor on the world stage for years to come, and for fellow countryman Taku Hiraoka, who pulled off the bronze with a solid second run.
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Here’s my thing: Shaun White, and all the athletes—medalists included—deserved better. Four years of hard work, blood, sweat, hospital visits, ice baths, and mental focus went into his getting to these Games, and when it came down to the wire, the venue—the very place that these athletes were trying so hard to get to—was sub-par. They were out there trying to give it their all on a halfpipe no better than the slushy one that’s chewed to pieces with ruts and bumps in the transition and walls at your local resort in March. As Danny Davis poignantly said in an interview with Yahoo Sports, “All these kids, myself included, worked very hard to get here. And then the pipe is just no fun and boring and [expletive]. Halfpipe is super fun. But riding a crappy pipe and having to perform in it is the worst.”
It’s a bit like watching the Pipeline Masters surf contest in Hawaii go down in 2-foot surf. Sure, someone will surf it and win, but when the waves are small, it’s not necessarily going to be best surfer in the world. It’s going to be the person who navigated the conditions best and was able to perform in them on that day.
The Sochi Olympics are going to be remembered for a lot of things when this is all over. Some of them Russia will be proud of—others, not so much. The snowboarding events will likely be remembered in a negative light. After one look at the NBC primetime coverage of people throwing salt on the halfpipe as well as spraying it with firehoses, and you knew that pipe was doomed. Riders’ boards chopped across the pipe, searching for a clean line and a solid place to hold an edge. And in the finals, few people were able to put together full runs. Many medal contenders ate it by simply flying across the flat bottom (see this video on Deadspin.com to see what we mean).
And that’s why I feel bad for Shaun. He didn’t get to throw the run he wanted in the conditions they should have been in for an event this important. He’s a man who’s dedicated years and years of his life to snowboarding and to being the best at it no matter the costs. He is focused and driven to win. But that’s what he does, and he’s turned those wins and fame into Shaun White Enterprises—a business that gives him time and money to focus on snowboarding, donate money to children’s charities, as well as devote time to his other interests of skateboarding and music. And, you know what, a lot of “snowboarders” hate him for it. They hate that he eschews the typical “we’re all friends out having fun” talk that is common around the competitive side of the sport. He’s the brunt of jokes and often pointed to as a lame or mainstream version of snowboarding. But you know what? We should love him for that.
Shaun White first brought snowboarding to the masses in 2006, at the Winter Olympic games in Torino, Italy, where White and his then “Flying Tomato” moniker spun snowboarding into America’s living rooms. Suddenly the sport was cool, even legitimate, to outsiders. Every sport needs a Michael Jordan—someone to turn America’s eyes, draw in mainstream sponsorships to the sport, and absorb the pressure of celebrity so the rest of the athletes can go on doing what they do best. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of action sports. We need a hero who can step outside of our insular world and translate our singular lifestyle and culture to the mainstream. Surfing has Kelly Slater. Skateboarding has Tony Hawk. And we, as snowboarders, have Shaun White.
Whether you believe it or not, we should hold him up and thank him for being that person. I cried for Shaun White because he has taken that pressure of a nation and a sport and carried it like an invisible backpack so no one else had to. Maybe, after Tuesday night, he can put it down for a while.
More Winter Olympics stories on GrindTV
Five must-have tricks in women’s snowboard halfpipe
Going with the Golds
Can Team USA win a medal each day in Sochi?
Torah Bright’s road to Sochi rocky, but redemptive
Kelly Clark often mistaken for ‘American Idol’
Shaun White misses podium in men’s snowboard halfpipe final
Taylor Gold misses shot at men’s halfpipe final
Iouri Podladtchikov stiff competition for Shaun White
USA’s Devin Logan secures Sochi silver
Meet Japanese wunderkind Ayumu Hirano