Sochi: What Shaun White Did Wrong in the Halfpipe

Photo Courtesy of John Lemieux, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of John Lemieux, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

For the first time since it’s Olympic debut in 1998, the Men’s Snowboard Halfpipe podium featured exactly zero American riders — meaning that Shaun White didn’t make it to the podium. Shaun White, the guy who’s supposed to win all the time, did the opposite of that, riding so poorly (relatively speaking) that he very likely lost.

After garnering criticism from the industry and his peers by bailing on the slopestyle competition to focus exclusively on the halfpipe, the pressure on White was immense. Not only because he had the chance to make history by being the first American to earn three straight gold medals in the same event, but because his very inclusion in the slopestyle squad for Team USA had been met with skepticism, and his eleventh-hour bail from that competition meant that there was no time for an alternate to compete in his place.

Thus, in addition to the stress of competing against some of the best halfpipe riders in the world, Shaun White threw America under the bus in slopestyle and put all his eggs in one basket, saying that, “At least I’ll cement my legacy as the best Olympic halfpipe snowboarder of all time.” That didn’t happen.

Photo Courtesy of Andy Liang, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of Andy Liang, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

How the Halfpipe Event Is Scored

Halfpipe snowboarding in the Olympics is governed by an organization called the International Ski Federation (or, FIS). Despite the fact that snowboarding can often come across as relatively lawless compared to other, more visibly regimented sports, the FIS actually has an incredibly dry but mildly informative 60-plus page handbook on how to judge halfpipe riders. (Also, if you think it’s ridiculous that a skiing organization is in charge of the rules around scoring snowboarding — well, you’re not alone.) Luckily, you don’t need to read the handbook. Here are the salient points.

  • Halfpipe runs are scored by three-to-six judges, plus the head judge. Each of them gives a score based on their impression of the entire run.
  • Each rider is scored out of 100 with points awarded based on amplitude (how high and how fast), degree of difficulty, trick execution, and variety of maneuvers.
  • Riders lose points for things like flat landings, landing on the deck of the halfpipe, hand drags, sketchy landings, and falls. The more severe/visible the mistake, the heavier the points penalty.

Essentially, riders have to make their tricks look good and make their runs look easy. Not all that different from any other Olympic sport that uses judges — and it makes sense, even if the manual reads like a bunch of tourists trying, in vain, to interact with a foreign culture. The emphasis between degree of difficulty and stylish fluidity vacillates back and forth in the greater snowboard community, and when American rider Danny Davis pulled down a 92.00 with a run that was light on the rotations but ridiculously clean, it was clear that these judges were going to give ample consideration to both.

Photo Courtesy of Hypergene, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of Hypergene, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

How Shaun White Could Have Done Better

To put it bluntly: he could have ridden a whole lot better. That seems obvious, but after watching the Finals — where you get two runs and take the best score — it’s clear that White wasn’t really in the same zone he had been during the Semis. The Semis, held earlier that day, saw White post the highest score of the entire event (95.75) while laying down a run that reaffirmed, despite the cloud hanging over him in the world of snowboarding, that he really is one of the best snowboarders on the entire planet.

His Finals run was not that. At all. White’s main claim to fame in the halfpipe is that he’s always gone way, way bigger than his contemporaries. That’s the “amplitude” that the judges pay attention to — how fast you’re riding and how high you go. So, on a pipe like the Sochi Pipe that has a 25 foot wall, when Shaun winds up 17 additional feet in the air to perform his first grab of the run, it will garner more points than another rider doing the same trick with less height, because a higher amplitude creates a greater degree of difficulty. That’s fine if you can make it look good, but neither of White’s runs looked comfortable. To wit, here’s some of what went wrong on White’s two Finals runs.

First Run:

  • He under-rotated the double cork.
  • Missed the grab on the “Yolo Flip,” a switch (opposite foot forward), frontside (spinning across the downward fall line), double cork (two backflips), and 1440 (four complete rotations.) When you do it right, it looks like this.
  • Crashed while attempting the Yolo Flip.

Second Run:

  • Under-rotated a 1440 spin.
  • Hand dragging and butt-checking.
  • Landing too flat on his last maneuver.

In order to win, White was going to have to land a Yolo flip — and he couldn’t rely on style the same way a rider like Danny Davis could. It’s not part of Shaun’s general modus operandi, and Iouri Podladtchijov — the guy who landed the Yolo in that gif linked above — had put one down a few runs earlier. There was no way White could have beaten Podladtchijov without sticking the Yolo flip, and he didn’t. In order to medal, White would have had to lay down an incredibly clean run on his second attempt — Japanese riders Ayumu Hirano (15) and Taku Hiraoka (18) had both sideslipped the allure of the showstopping big trick (the Yolo having only been done once in a contest before Tuesday) for a near-flawless execution. White tried to go big, but in his words, “It just wasn’t my night,” and he went home instead.

Photo Courtesy of Our Common, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of Our Common, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

What Shaun White Could Have Done Differently

He could have gone for the boycott. YoBeat, probably the best website about snowboarding, echoed this sentiment after the Men’s finals on Tuesday, but this idea goes back to at least the 1998 Nagano Olympics, which Terje Håkonsen famously boycotted. For those just reading his name for the first time, Håkonsen has been one of the best snowboarders in the world for over twenty years, and has the medals to prove it. His point, which he still stands by, was that the FIS doesn’t have a handle on snowboarding. He’s probably right, by the way — the FIS steadfastly refuses to hire Snow Park Technologies, a feature-crafting company universally regarded by snowboarders as the best in the business, to build Olympic halfpipes.

Lo and behold, the condition of the halfpipe, which was universally derided by competitors, commentators, and any spectator with the sound on (half-pipes shouldn’t make “swush” noises, ever), was garbage, forcing the riders into an uphill battle just to get out of the pipe, let alone focus on the routines that would bring them acclaim in the sport’s most visible event. Alone among them, Shaun White was the only snowboarder with enough pull to make any kind of boycott or forced rescheduling viable. He’s got so much pull, of course, because he’s the most famous snowboarder on the planet — and because he’s the most famous snowboarder on the planet, he’s got the most to lose by getting involved in something like that. There was no boycott. We saw what happened.

It was written on his face — shining through the bandana, goggles, and helmet. Almost as soon as he dropped in, it was clear Shaun White wasn’t having any fun. But Shaun White never looks like he’s having fun, even when he’s winning. So maybe he should have made a stand on the side of fun to demand a better product for the fans by insisting on a better pipe for the riders. At the same time, White seems like a decent human being at the end of the day, and since snowboarders look at the Olympics the way NBA players look at the Dunk Contest — a fun distraction from the real deal — maybe he did exactly what he needed to and just had a bad night.

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