KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Shaun White jammed his wrist on one jump and watched the world’s best snowboarders join him in tumbling down the supersized, super-scary Olympic slopestyle course.
Quickly, his choice became clear: Time to step away from the danger, and give himself a better chance in the event he knows he can win.
The world’s most famous snowboarder pulled out of the new Olympic event Wednesday, saying that after much deliberation, he has decided to bypass a chance at winning two gold medals at these games and instead concentrate on the halfpipe, where he’ll have a chance to win his third straight title next week.
“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 said in a statement.
The world’s most decorated rider in a sport known for its risk-takers, White’s decision was a stunner that dealt yet another blow to the still-to-start Sochi Games. They have been wracked by security threats and political dust-ups, along with the loss of at least one other headliner, injured American skier Lindsey Vonn.
White isn’t leaving, but his departure from an event that was essentially introduced at the Olympics this year to take advantage of his star power certainly can’t make the folks at the IOC or NBC too happy.
“He’s a notable person and he probably would have brought more viewers to slopestyle,” said Nick Goepper, an American who competes in the skiing version of the event.
IOC spokesman Mark Adams downplayed the idea that the course is too dangerous.
“I don’t think that’s an issue,” he said. “A lot of the athletes have said they’re very happy, they like the venue.”
Slopestyle qualifying starts Thursday, the day before the opening ceremony.
Snowboarding’s newest and most-hyped Olympic event is a judged sport — a speed-packed trip down the mountain, filled with rails, bumps and, most notably, steeply angled jumps that allow riders to flip two, sometimes three times, before landing. White hurt his wrist on one of the takeoff ramps, which were built “kind of obnoxiously tall,” according to one top rider, Canadian Mark McMorris.
White, who had already hurt his shoulder and ankle in the lead-up to the Olympics, deemed his latest injury — the jammed wrist — as nothing serious and said reports about it were overblown. But he said there remained serious issues with the slopestyle course.
“There are definitely concerns about the course,” he said. “It’s been interesting to see how it’s developed and changed over the past couple days. The big question is if it will continue to change. Because every day, they have riders meetings and they give feedback. Sometimes there’s changes, sometimes there’s not.”
Reaction to White’s decision came from several corners, not all of it positive.
“Mr. White… It’s easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win,” said Canadian rider Sebastian Toutant in a tweet that was later deleted.
Maybe so, but White certainly wasn’t alone in questioning the course.
Australian Torah Bright, the defending women’s halfpipe champion who is trying to compete in three events this year — halfpipe, slopestyle and a racer’s version called snowboardcross — also described an overly treacherous few days of training.
“We’re here as the world’s best snowboarders,” she told The Associated Press. “Too bad we don’t have a world-class course. The craftsmanship doesn’t match the world-class athletes that are here.”