Shaun White must have known this would happen -- that the instant he announced on the Today Show that he was pulling out of the slopestyle event at Sochi, the hate would flow. And it did, most notably from the Twitter accounts of two Canadian slopestyle riders, Max Parrot and Sebastien Toutant. "Shaun knows he won't be able to win the slopes, thats why he pulled out. He's scared!" wrote Parrot. "Mr. White ... It's easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can't win," said Toutant. It's not hard to imagine what snowboarders who narrowly missed qualifying for the event must be saying. White is taking their spot – and wasting it.
They should all shut up.
Snowboarders can't stand White -- in this sport of bros, he has always held himself above everyone else -- and this is a perfect excuse to trash him. Also, Parrot and Toutant aren't entirely wrong. Slopestyle -- picture a skateboard park in the snow and you pretty much get the idea -- is not White's best event. Sochi represents its Olympic debut and White has worked hard to try to master it. Nevertheless, going into the games, he still wasn't considered one of the world’s best slopestyle riders. But that doesn't mean he was "scared" of losing. It just means that he didn't think it was worth the risk of competing on an irresponsibly designed course that was taking down a lot of his fellow riders. (One of the event's favorites, Norway's Torstein Hormgo, broke his collarbone. Another suffered a concussion.)
Whatever you think of White, personally -- and it's not unfair to say that he has brought together some of the worst qualities of the bratty child star and the entitled professional athlete -- he has almost single-handedly built the sport of snowboarding. The free gear that his fellow riders are wearing and using, the ever-growing popularity of extreme sports, the very fact that something like slopestyle (which Bob Costas has said belongs on "Jackass") is now even part of the Olympics -- all are thanks in large part to White.
This is White's third Olympics. He holds the X Games record for most gold medals and most medals overall. Even at their safest, extreme sports are incredibly dangerous. For years, White has put himself at risk -- for his own enrichment, sure, but also for our entertainment. White was 19 when we fell in love with him and his American flag bandana at the 2006 Olympics. He's now 27, an adult competing in a sport for kids. Maybe that means White doesn't belong at Sochi. But he's still favored to win his third Olympic gold medal on the half pipe. More to the point, how he measures risk to his body, and calibrates what he’s willing to accept, is a decision for White alone. No one has a right to sit in judgment -- least of all the people benefiting most from the death-defying flips he has landed in the past.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanmahler.)
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