Shaun White entered these Olympics as one of the highest-profile members of the U.S. Olympic Team – not just an athlete, but a bona fide celebrity, recognizable even to people who don’t know the difference between an ollie and a McTwist. NBC has a long tradition of hyping certain athletes during the Games, but White has gotten special treatment even among that select group. Before the Olympics even began, the network aired an hour-long special about his preparation for Sochi, and viewers have been reminded all week that White could make history in the men’s half-pipe, where a win would make him the first American male to take home gold in three straight Olympics. But the chance to write a perfect ending to that made-for-NBC story wasn’t the only reason the pressure was on White during today’s half-pipe finals.
White had been scheduled to compete in the new slopestyle event in Sochi but pulled out, citing concerns about the course. Doing so, however, allowed him to focus on the half-pipe, where he’d won gold in 2006 and 2010, and could make history this year. The decision was controversial in snowboarding circles: Two Canadian snowboarders mocked him on Twitter, with one writing that “Its easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win.”
It’s not inconceivable that White would pull out of an event if he didn’t think he’d finish first: After coming in second in a competition in December, he stepped off the podium and handed his trophy to a boy in the crowd. After so many gold medals and first-place finishes, coming in second doesn’t provide much of a thrill. And White’s focus on winning gold — the sort of thing that wouldn’t raise eyebrows in other sports — has earned him criticism in the snowboarding community. “He’s kind of separated himself from the sport,” said Andy Finch, a former Olympic snowboarder and current Fox Sports analyst. “What he’s done is incredible. But for most of these guys, snowboarding is about going out and having fun. Shaun’s looking out for No. 1.”
That seems like an insane mindset to most sports fans. Of course he wants to win. That’s the whole point! But snowboarding, even now that it’s become firmly established as an Olympic sport, retains a sort of carefree spirit. When snowboarders congratulate each other after runs, they’re not just doing it for the cameras. But there was a growing sense that White had lost touch with the community. “I don’t know Shaun White personally,” said snowboarding filmmaker Chris Grenier to USA Today recently. “But he doesn’t give a [expletive] about the snowboarding community. He’s whored himself out where he has a scooter company and they sell Shaun White shoes at Walmart.”
The thing about White’s focus on gold, of course, is that it only adds to the pressure to perform. (Sample headline from earlier today: “It’s time for Shaun White to put up or shut up.”) And during the half-pipe competition earlier today, White came up short, finishing off the podium in fourth place. White, the last last rider to go, managed a score of just 90.25 on his final run, more than four points behind gold medalist Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland. For the record, after his score was announced, White — his dreams of making history dashed — smiled and hugged the new champion.