If you tuned in to watch the qualifying round of the Olympic men's snowboarding slopestyle competition on Thursday, there was one enormous name among the medal contenders missing from the event.
Shaun White, without a doubt the most famous snowboarder on the planet and a bona fide American household name, pulled out of slopestyle competition after jamming his wrist during a training run on the difficult Sochi course.
The men's slopestyle event is suddenly—and quite noticeably—Tomato free.
That news has not gone over well in the snowboarding community. Nothing about White does these days.
White told reporters his wrist is fine but called out the Sochi organizers for their course design, releasing a statement that read, in part, via Today.com:
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. ...
... 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 made sure to mention how hard the decision was, given that Sochi is the first Olympics to hold an official slopestyle competition, but stressed that his wrist wasn't the reason for his withdrawal. White asserts his decision was one of safety—of Olympic preservation.
His fellow competitors didn't take too kindly to that decision, with some riders going so far as to suggest White didn't want to participate because he wasn't going to win.
From CTVNews.ca, Canadian snowboarder Sebastien Toutant wrote on Twitter, "Mr White... It's easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can't win..."
"Shaun knows he won't be able to win the slopes, that's why he pulled out. He's scared!" tweeted fellow Canadian snowboarder Maxence Parrot, who is the defending X Games champion in the event.
The report noted that both tweets have since been deleted. Parrot, one of the leaders after the early qualifying round, publicly apologized, saying it was a disappointment to have an event where the best riders in the world aren't competing.
Ultimately, the backlash came not because one of the best riders pulled out of an Olympic competition, but because Shaun White did.
White is the most polarizing figure in the world of snowboarding. He's an outsider in a sport he helped make as popular as it is today.
White is as famous in his sport as any winter Olympian is in any sport. Make no mistake, without White—and without the popularity of the sport that grew from events like the X Games, where White became that breakout star—there would probably be no Olympic slopestyle snowboarding.
There is no debate to White's historical importance in the sport of snowboarding—and all extreme sports—and its rise to prominence at the international Olympic level.
Kids today grow up wanting to be snowboarders because of White. He is the Tiger Woods of his sport, where other riders resent him because of his excellence while reaping the benefits of his existence.
Did White pull out of the slopestyle competition because he thought the course was too dangerous, or because he thought he wouldn't win? Clearly some of the other competitors feel it was the latter, and truthfully it may be.
That criticism may be valid. Would Tiger Woods get ripped by other golfers for pulling out of a tournament he wasn't going to win to prepare for a major championship the following week? You bet he would.
Does White, like Woods, get held to a higher standard than everyone else in his sport? You bet he does.
Certainly White has brought some of the criticism—this week and in the past—upon himself. In 2010, he trained at a private halfpipe location built by his sponsor, Red Bull, in preparation for the Vancouver Olympics.
He has notoriously kept himself away from the snowboarding community at times, focusing more on his brand—he has an apparel line at big-box store Target—than growing the sport on the slopes. He has positioned himself as bigger than the sport, so when someone of his illustrious status pulls out of a big event, he becomes an enormous target (no pun intended) for the other riders, including some of his own teammates.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports wrote an article Wednesday chronicling White's experience with the other riders, liberally quoting fellow American and halfpipe competitor Danny Davis, the 25-year-old snowboarding star who seems to be no fan of White or his success.
"The thing with Shaun is, he's got a line at Target, which is great to get kids into Shaun White and snowboarding," said Davis. "But it's tough when you don't give too much back to snowboarding."
Yes, that is another American rider stating publicly that White—the man personally responsible for getting millions of kids in this generation into sports like snowboarding and skateboarding—doesn't give enough back to the sport.
This actually happened. At the Olympics.
Davis is part of a snowboarding super group called Frends—cleverly misspelled because "there is no I in Frends"—that tried to bring the sport back to its roots and away from big-ticket competition and corporate interests.
A noble venture, surely, but Davis either fails to acknowledge or chooses to blindly ignore the fact he is at the Olympics. This isn't some halfpipe carved out on the backside of a mountain in Colorado; this is the biggest event in the world.
Davis, like White, is there representing his country. And while there may not be an "i" in Frends, there is one in America.
As if Davis' first quote about White wasn't completely lacking in self-awareness, Davis said, via Passan, "I hate to talk too much [expletive] on him because he's not a bad person. He's just different than me. I truly love snowboarding."
It's all about the shred, bruh. It's not about celebrity and corporate interests. It's about the looooove, man.
I'm paraphrasing, of course. But that's what Davis sounds like, which is great and noble and wonderful for the sport if he wasn't competing at the Olympics.
Davis is at the biggest competition in the history of the world, and he has the temerity to call out another rider on his team for caring too much about success.
Davis also seems to have the utter lack of self-awareness to rebuke White about a lifestyle that's too reliant on corporate interests—his Target comment is seeping with irony—when he is sponsored by Mountain Dew, Dragon Alliance, Martin Guitars and Burton, the biggest brand name in the history of snowboarding.
Sorry, Danny, but it's hard to chide a guy for being a sellout when your career is being funded by corporate interests too. Even if some of Davis' brand affiliations aren't quite as "big business" as White's, they both ride Burton boards and they both have eyewear deals—though one might surmise White's deal with Oakley is a tad higher-profile.
And, golly, just go to Target's website to see all of the awesome Mountain Dew products they sell.
If Davis wins Olympic gold and Mountain Dew puts his face on one of their cans, there is a 100 percent chance they will end up in the biggest of big-box stores, bruh.
I'm sure all the snowboarding diehards will read Davis' comments in a different light than the general American public. To most of us, White is an American legend and the only snowboarder of this generation we really know. As aloof and detached as he may be from the rest of the shredders on the slopes, he's the guy who ostensibly introduced the rest of us to the sport.
He's the guy who lives in the media spotlight when the rest of the riders slide through in relative anonymity.
Whether Davis and the other riders have remained obscure and unknown by choice or simply by nature of the popularity of their sport is not the point. The point is they are competing together at the Olympics. It's disingenuous to suggest some riders are there for the love of the sport while others are there for personal gain.
They give out precious medals to the winners. It's all about personal gain.
This would be like a punk band back in the day complaining that Green Day sold out to a major label…before playing in a battle of the bands at the Grammys.
Snowboarders can suggest their sport be about the artistry and style and the shredding all they want, but they are in the Olympics now. This is where world-class athletes in dozens of sports go to compete—to win—at the highest level. If winning matters for one sport, it has to matter for all of them. That's the entire concept of the Olympic Games.
Even if achieving Olympic glory is the antithesis of what snowboarding is supposed to be all about, here they are, the best riders in the world, trying to one-up each other for communal adulation and international acclaim.
Earning a spot on the Olympic team makes you a star. Winning a gold medal makes you a legend and gets your clothing line inside all the big-box stores.
That may not be the reason most of the other riders are in Sochi, but that will be the end result nonetheless.
The snowboarding bro code might have to wait a few weeks. There is history on the line at Sochi, for whoever wins.
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