It says something startling about the ludicrous pressure and expectations set by the media and the general public that Shaun White is being blasted by several news outlets as a ‘failure’ for placing 4th at the Olympics.
Let me repeat that - 4th at the Olympics. And on a crap pipe, at that.
If this were his only achievement, it would still be an impressive one. But it’s not. We’re talking about a man who, since 2003, has medaled25 times - of which 17 are gold, including 2 Olympic gold medals.
Coming off an ankle injury in qualifiers and a nasty fall just 2 weeks ago (grave enough that he pulled out of Slopestyle altogether for safety reasons), he still managed to place 4th in a competition made up entirely of people whose main goal was not more to medal than to BEAT HIM. To any astute observer, this would be a sizeable accomplishment.
So why are so many headlines running Shaun White as a failure? Because he didn’t get the illustrious threepeat (a feat which has NEVER been accomplished by a male athlete before, by the way)? Because he didn’t bust out the triple cork - which might very well be physically impossible, and keeping in mind that even the double is so difficult that many have called for it to be banned from the sport for being too dangerous? Surely not, since of the three medal-winners, only I-Pod pulled out these tricks. Are the Japanese members of the podium ‘failures’ as well? Or do we just hold Shaun White to ridiculous standards that no one – not even his superhuman talent – can live up to?
Basically, it seems like general opinion is punishing Shaun White for not doing what he so often does – the impossible. Shaun has almost single-handedly driven innovation in snowboarding since he entered the scene, consistently pushing the envelope to make the impossible, possible, and the nearly impossible, required. Even I-Pod’s gold-winning YOLO flip was a trick that he only pulled out because he thought he had to – to beat Shaun.
And that’s not a singular occurrence. Even when he’s not on the top of the podium (and Shaun almost always is), the competitors who find themselves there do because they pulled out tricks, or even learned tricks for the first time, specifically to be at a competitive level with Shaun White. Here is a man who propels the sport forward by constantly reinventing what it means to be a top-tier snowboarder – and that’s without getting into the media phenomenon that he’s brought to the sport. Almost non-existent on the public radar before Shaun took the stage, snowboarding is now one of the most-watched events in both the Winter Olympics and the Winter X-Games. Prizes and sponsorships have increased exponentially to reflect this burgeoning popularity, largely borne on the shoulders of Shaun White, but enjoyed by all competitors. In 2003, ESPN doled out $500k total in Winter X-Games prizes; in 2013 it paid $3 mil.
It should be shocking, then, that anyone involved in snowboarding wouldn’tbe rooting for a man whose name is synonymous with snowboarding; one who not only brought the sport into the public sphere in just a few short years, but who also helped to increase sponsorships and multiply paychecks six times over – literally. After all, Shaun White isn’t just the best in the sport, he practically is the sport, and the fact that every headline since his loss still sites him as the main topic – not any the three medal winners – is a testament to that. Even now, days later, the only article I’ve seen that more than briefly mentions I-Pod is still titled “The Man Who Beat Shaun White”, and you have to dig through five separate Shauncentric stories on the Yahoo! news page before you even get to that one.
Much like pre-event interviews, where reporters asked every boarder more questions about Shaun White than about themselves, post-results articles follow suit. It’s not “I-Pod’s Win” but “White’s Loss”. Two teen Japanese phenoms beat out Superman himself, I-Pod lands an incredible trick (which Shaun also landed in his second run, though not as gracefully), but all people want to talk about, write about, hear about, is the Flying Tomato.
The reality is sometimes all the skill and all the practice in the world don’t come together at the right moment to make it happen (which is a relative term – since even his ‘disappointing run’ was the likes of which many pro-boarders will never be able to match). The fact that he pulled off the highest-scoring run of the day – just not at the right time – is evidence enough of that. Shaun has been so inhumanly consistent, so physics-defyingly unflappable in the past that he makes it easy to forget he doesn’t actually fly – the laws of gravity and statistics apply to him, too.
He had one bad run, on one bad day, on one crappy pipe. Superman though he is, he is allowed to have a moment to be human.
If Shaun White is a “failure”, may we all hope to ‘fail’ as spectacularly as he.
And just as a side note, let’s talk for a moment about the disgusting hypocrisy that is high-level snowboarding. I don’t hear anyone calling Greg Bretz – days ago thought to be one of the ‘only ones who could rival White’ – a failure for placing a massively disappointing 12th (the farthest from the podium you can score in the finals, fyi). We should definitely be calling him a douche for saying in an international interview that his ‘dream scenario’ was to knock his own teammate off the podium, though, especially the Great White Hope for America to place. Personal jealousy getting in the way of sportsmanship, national duty, and general common courtesy… Classy. And he’s not alone in his petty remonstrations. The duplicity is pretty rife amongst the American team – most of whom promulgate a bumper-sticker worthy slogan of ‘peace, love, and snowboarding’, yet never miss the chance to take a hit at Shaun, even when he’s down.
On the one hand, athletes like Danny Davis disseminate the hippie-surfer vibe of ‘love the pipe, not the podium’. But on the other hand, in interviews none of these boarders’ professed goals are ever “having lots of fun”. Across the board, in every language, and in every country in the world, they answer – “I want to beat Shaun White”. But how do you catch up to Superman? By practicing and mastering tricks you’d never have tried otherwise – yet another way that Shaun White is elevating the sport. And when some of those tricks – all of which Shaun can pull out just for fun – remain out of your grasp, what do you do? Hard work will only get you so far, and talent has to carry you the rest of the way (and let’s face it, few have talent as massive as Shaun’s). Perhaps when you spend your entire career chasing someone’s back, you get the urge to stab him in it. Perhaps you forget that he’s the reason you get to be in the race at all. Reason away those childish feelings however you will – most of Shaun’s teammates have. But the reality is that the athletes who can actually keep up (I-Pod, for example), don’t seem to have the same complaints as the boarders who are trailing behind. Funny how it always seems to work out like that.
Success leaves a bitter wake. Especially when that success seems to come so naturally and so consistently. American competitors – all too eager to shoot down a ‘disappointing run’ that they themselves couldn’t even compete with – can keep their jealousy. But unless they want to continue to embarrass the U.S. in the international media and tarnish the sport they claim to love, they should keep it to themselves. A little class never hurt anyone. If it’s really “all about the boarding” and not about winning, then stop acting like such sore losers.
Even in a crushing moment of disappointment, Shaun was eager to congratulate I-Pod for his victory. Who loves snowboarding more: the man who celebrates a good run, or the men who mock it because they couldn’t pull it off themselves?
If you know anything about snowboarding, you know that the US team is 99% TOTAL DICKBAGS. I was so angry I drew a thing. Such fucking hypocrisy.