Standing in the crowd at the bottom of the halfpipe, we witnessed history being made last night in Sochi. That probably sounds like a clanger of a cliché: The kind of thing Fern Cotton might say when she’s got too much time to fill during a jubilee broadcast. But hear me out.
While every Olympic snowboard halfpipe final is historic (they only happen once every four years after all) last night’s results felt particularly significant. It marked the end of an era, a sign of things to come and a changing of the guard in more ways than one:
In a discipline that’s always been dominated by Americans (especially when it comes to the Olympics) this was the first time ever a yank wasn’t standing on the podium. It was also the first time ever a Japanese rider had stood up there (with both Ayumu Hirano and Taku Hiraoka claiming well-deserved medals).
It was the first ever men’s Olympic final to feature a Chinese rider (with again not one, but two of them making it all the way through) and of course the first time Shaun White had been beaten on the biggest stage of all.
It was the first time Shaun White had been beaten on the biggest stage of all.
It’s no exaggeration to say the result was a shock for everyone in snowboarding. “It’s gonna be Shaun [to win], definitely,” Dom Harington said just before the final kicked off. Ben Kilner, who had also watched what Shaun, Ayumu and iPod had been throwing down in training over the past few days, agreed: “I’ve got my money on Shaun.” The Whitelines team, the commentators, and even most of the crowd around us reckoned it was Shaun’s to lose, especially as he’d just earned the highest score in qualifying.
And yet thinking about it, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that when it came to the crunch Shaun was left floundering by his rivals; that the man so used to stomping everything was left hucking a run that looked desperate in its messiness.
If we’d looked more closely, we’d have realised the signs were there in weeks before these Olympics. In the run-up to the Vancouver games Shaun put out a video of a brand new trick (the Tomahawk). Then he rocked up and won the X Games in imperious style, obliterating all his nearest competitors.
This season, he put out a self-funded documentary that made him look strangely vulnerable. A video in which he tried to land a brand new trick (the pipe triple cork) and failed. He then hummed and hah-ed before finally pulling out of the X Games to “concentrate on his preparations for Sochi”. Even if you assume by “preparations” he was talking mostly about slopestyle, the signals it sent out were still a far cry from what had gone before.
Before last night, much was made of the fact that (with the exception of Greg Bretz in the US Team qualifiers) Shaun White hadn’t been beaten in the pipe in the past four years. But the fact is that Shaun White hadn’t been in the pipe much in the past four years. At least not competitively. With the exception of the X Games in Aspen and one European X Games, he hadn’t ridden in a single contest that wasn’t strictly necessary to qualify for these games.
He admitted as much in an interview with Snowboarder Magazine, saying: “I can only snowboard for a bit until I lose motivation.”
On top of that, he made it clear in various recent interviews that other things were starting to take priority over snowboarding in his life. There was his band, his business interests and the whole celebrity lifestyle.
A New York Times journalist who spent time with him over the course of a few months reckoned he “dreamed of being an entrepreneur” more than a snowboarder. Sam McMahon, reviewing the documentary for Whitelines, came to the conclusion that Shaun just wasn’t stoked on snowboarding anymore. And he admitted as much in an interview with Snowboarder Magazine, saying: “I can only snowboard for a bit until I lose motivation.”
Compare this to last night’s gold medallist Iouri Podlatchikov, and the contrast is obvious. In the past few seasons, I-Pod has ridden in every contest going. European Opens, US Opens, X Games on both sides of the Atlantic, Dew Tours, he’s worked the circuit.
He also took the time to learn the Tomahawk, the trick Shaun had used to beat him. And then went one better: He went away and invented a brand new (and equally ludicrously-named) trick of his own (the Yolo Flip). It wasn’t dissimilar to what Shaun himself did four years ago.
In the build up to these games it was hard to escape the impression that having failed to get a medal in Vancouver, and fed up with the “always the bridesmaid” tag, I-Pod was taking a leaf out of his rival’s book, working harder than everyone else. If Shaun seemed like he slowly losing interest in snowboarding (at least outside of the Olympics) then I-Pod was more driven than ever.
And it’s that more than anything that explains why Shaun lost. I-Pod is not a man who’s ever been afraid of excessive celebration, but even for this king of the claim, last night’s was next level – it was obvious how much landing his run and winning meant to him. By the same token it was obvious from Shaun’s gracious smile and congratulatory hug that winning the gold medal didn’t mean as much as it might once have done. And actually, why should it? He already has two of them on his mantlepiece.
Much has been made of the quality of the pipe last night, and rightly so. As BBC commentator Tim Warwood put it said when we spoke to him afterwards, “if you watch the slow motion replays their boards were flapping all over the place. It’s like they’re trying to ride salmon up the walls!”
But while Warwood suggested this might have helped the Japanese riders “who are more used to riding any old pipe” than Shaun, “who’s used to training on perfect icy walls”, I can’t help feeling the reason he didn’t beat Ayumu or I-Pod ran deeper than just the dog-shite conditions on the night. As much as he really went for it, wrestling that last run round as hard as he could, there was something missing from Shaun’s performance.
Yes he learned the Yolo, and yes he matched I-Pod almost trick for trick, but would the Shaun of 2010 have settled for that? Surely not.
Yes he learned the Yolo, and yes he matched I-Pod almost trick for trick, but would the Shaun of 2010 have settled for that? Surely not. If that documentary had been made back then, what’s the betting that he’d have dealt with the fear, stepped up, stomped that triple and won the gold? In the event both I-Pod (who was performing in front of a “home” crowd) and Ayumu (who’s surely the future of halfpipe riding and – whisper it – the next Shaun White) looked keener, meaner and more eager to win.
So, what next? Well, we at WL hope the defeat (which was inevitable, eventually) will actually be something of a relief, and that Shaun will be able to get on and enjoy his life. Last night certainly appeared to mark a changing of the guard, and the moment Shaun’s era of total dominance came to an end – not because he didn’t want to win, but because he didn’t want to win enough. And that for me was why he lost.