White, who is still going for his third straight Olympic gold in the halfpipe, cited concerns over the safety of the course and a desire to be healthy for halfpipe. One of his rivals, however, said the snowboarding legend was merely afraid of losing.
It's a big loss for the event, since White is one of the most popular athletes in the Games, and he had trained incredibly hard to become the only medal contender in both slopestyle and halfpipe.
This is the first year that slopestyle—a downhill run with obstacles and jumps—has been part of the Olympics. When he was younger, the redhead from San Diego dominated slopestyle in the X Games competition, but in 2009, he stopped competing in it to focus on the halfpipe for the Olympics.
Excited about the prospect of winning two medals in one Games, White came back to slopestyle when he found out that it was going to be an event in Sochi. However, he had a hard time catching up with all the advancements that took place while he was gone, particularly the triple corks.
He worked hard to catch up with the competition and blew away the field at the final U.S. slopestyle qualifier to make the Olympic team. But, in the end, it just became too much.
Just 24 hours before the slopestyle qualification rounds were set to begin, White shared the news of his withdraw with an exclusive announcement to NBC's Today show:
After much deliberation with my team, I have made the decision to focus solely on trying to bring home the third straight gold medal in halfpipe for Team USA. The difficult decision to forego slopestyle is not one I take lightly as I know how much effort everyone has put into holding the slopestyle event for the first time in Olympic history, a history I had planned on being a part of.
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.
White wasn't the only one who had legitimate concerns about the safety of the slopestyle course. On Monday in Sochi, Norwegian Torstein Horgmo, a medal favorite in slopestyle, fell and injured himself on a practice run and had to withdraw from the Games. Female snowboarder Marika Enne of Finland fell on the course Tuesday, got a concussion and had to be taken off on a stretcher.
Injuries are an inevitable part of an extreme sport like snowboarding, but the steep course in Sochi seemed to be exacerbating the concerns.
White himself jammed his wrist Monday, adding another tally on the long list of nagging injuries he's experienced this season. He called the course "intimidating" and hoped that the officials would be able to make it more "friendly" before the competition began. But in the end, he just never seemed to find his comfort level on the course.
There were scheduling issues as well. The medal rounds for slopestyle coincide with the first day of halfpipe practice, so White was likely going to have to miss a crucial day getting prepared on the halfpipe if he went through with the slopestyle.
These logical—albeit last minute—reasons didn't keep X Games champion Max Parrot from taking shots at the legend, though. In a now-deleted tweet, saved by Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch, Parrot said White withdrew because he knew he couldn't win.
Boom, from Canada. RT @MaxParrot: Shaun knows he won't be able to win the slopes, thats why he pulled out. He's scared!— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) February 5, 2014
It's not a surprise that White's competitors are speaking out against him. That's happened before, with Parrot and fellow Canadian Mark McMorris taking most of the shots. McMorris has said in interviews before that White is "lame" and a bad person to be the face of the extreme sport.
Parrot later tweeted a pseudo-apology, seemingly saying that slopestyle wouldn't be the same without White's star power.
I'm sorry if I offence anybody. I just meant that it's not as fun to compete at the Olympics when the riders underlights aren't there.— Maxence Parrot (@MaxParrot) February 5, 2014
McMorris and Parrot will now be co-favorites of the slopestyle event with White on the sidelines. For the Americans, Chas Guldemond, Sage Kotsenburg and Ryan Stassel will compete—there will be nobody replacing White, since snowboarding doesn't allow alternates.
Despite what his competitors say, White's decision was ultimately more about fear of injury than fear of failure, though it would be hard to blame him if it was a bit of both. But like any great athlete, he had to make the decision that was best for his career.
White is no longer chasing two gold medals in Sochi—now, he's merely chasing history.