Rooting for Shaun White
Shaun White is not a snowboarder's snowboarder. In case this axiom has not been impressed upon you over the course of his competition and media blitz, which dates back to well before his 2006 Olympic gold in halfpipe, you can read all about it in a recent New York Times Magazine profile. If you need further convincing, click here, here or here.
You could also have checked the Twitter feeds of Olympic slopestyle favorites Sebastien Toutant and Max Parrot, except they deleted their tweets that taunted White for pulling out of the event because he was afraid he wouldn't win it. They had to delete those tweets, though, because in the insular community of professional snowboarding, calling out your fellow competitors goes against bro-code.
White, on the other hand, appears to have no problem calling out his fellow competitors. Exhibit A: Last month's interview with Snowboarder magazine's Pat Bridges. This lengthy exchange starts out as a pleasant enough discussion about White's new band, his various businesses and his generally stratospheric level of celebrity and success. But down toward the bottom, when Bridges brings up a few things that have clearly stuck in White's craw, the normally politic pro goes on blast.
White explains the nature of his dispute with snowboard organizing body Ticket To Ride (now World Snowboard Tour), which dates back to 2008, when -- according to White -- TTR officials tried to change the rules of how the overall title would be awarded so they could give it to Kevin Pearce at the U.S. Open of Snowboarding, rather than at the next event of the year, where there would be a far smaller media presence. The hitch was that all White needed to do to secure the title over Pearce was appear at that next event.
"The backlash from that was incredible," White said. "It was like, 'He is greedy, trying to screw Kevin over.' I couldn't figure out why people would think that. And for me to not do my best at an event, I was just like, 'F--- you.' Tiger Woods? Are you mad at Tiger Woods when he wins? Who is showing up to lose? That's what pisses me off the most about snowboarding. Everybody's bros, but they aren't. That mentality of 'Everybody's homies and we are all just at the contest and it doesn't matter who wins' is so fake."
To suggest that winning is the priority at a competition is anathema to received snowboarding wisdom, which states that everyone does it strictly for the love of the sport. Just ask 2010 Olympic halfpipe champion Torah Bright, who's bidding in an unprecedented three snowboard events at Sochi. "It's never been about winning for me," she told ESPN in an interview last week. "Contests aren't everything -- or even anything, necessarily."
White's not doing anything in Sochi for the love; all White wants to do is win, which is why he'll never be a snowboarder's snowboarder. But that is all fine, because there's another relevant axiom in this instance: Americans love winners.
There's no one I'd rather spend a day shredding with than White's teammate, fun-loving, laid-back Danny Davis, but when it comes to the two weeks of world-class competition that is the Olympic Winter Games, I'm hitching myself to the Shaun White bandwagon. Let the core snowboard community whinge on about how a Davis gold would be a victory for "real snowboarders." The Olympics is where the world gathers to celebrate great competitors.
And White is the winningest champ in competitive snowboarding history -- the only other rider even in the conversation is his U.S. teammate Kelly Clark. People forget that White had a winter X Games four-peat in slopestyle (2003-06) before he had a six-peat in SuperPipe. Pearce, Davis and Louie Vito may have put up a fight during the last Olympic cycle with their halfpipe double corks, but they had to learn those double corks because of White. White's been responsible for nearly every bar-raising in halfpipe for eight straight years, and with the rumored triple cork still out there, he may well do it again in Sochi.
White's being pilloried for pulling out of slopestyle, in part, because doing so at the last minute meant the U.S. Team had no time to select a replacement rider. This may have been graceless, but as John Branch points out in the Times, who was going to replace him? Fifteen-year-old Kyle Mack? Brandon Davis? The U.S. Olympic Team is about fielding the strongest possible team with the best chance for medals, and the team proved last week that life goes on without White by earning gold medals in both the men's and women's competitions.
White measures himself against guys like Woods and Michael Jordan, and we're supposed to disapprove of that, why, exactly? When did we start dinging guys for aspiring to a level of greatness that transcends their particular sport? White often seems insincere and overly sensitive; by most accounts, Jordan and Woods weren't exactly guys you'd want to play a pickup game or shoot a round with, either. They're iconic because they embody grace under pressure, physical dominance and pure competitive guts.
In fact, they embody the Olympic motto: Faster, higher, stronger. That was chosen by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, because, "Athletes need 'freedom of excess.' That is why we gave them this motto ... a motto for people who dare to try and break records."
White's the winningest halfpipe snowboarder of all time, and a win in Sochi would make him just the sixth U.S. Olympian -- and only the second Winter Olympian -- to win the same event three times. That's almost a decade of dominance in a sport where progression happens overnight. If his peers don't want to root for him to join the ranks of Michael Phelps, Carl Lewis or Bonnie Blair, that's fine. I know a whole country that does.