The first competition of the Olympics got underway Thursday morning, and much of the chatter at the men’s slopestyle event revolved around a snowboarder who wasn’t even on the mountain competing. Shaun White pulled out of the event one day earlier, saying he wanted to focus on the halfpipe and not risk injury on the challenging slopestyle course.
His decision drew mixed reaction from the remaining slopestyle competitors.
“He decided a couple months ago he was gonna do slopestyle and the halfpipe, you know,” Canadian rider Sebastien Toutant said following his qualifying runs Thursday. “He knew there was going to be a lot of risk here and a lot of risk in the pipe. To take an American spot to just not do it, I think it’s bad for Americans, you know. One of the guys could’ve been here competing right now.”
At least one American competitor seemed to agree, saying that White’s spot could have potentially gone to another deserving U.S. rider. The U.S. team sent the maximum four riders to compete in men’s slopestyle in Sochi.
“I was a little bummed,” New Hampshire native Chas Guldemond said of White’s decision. “There were a lot of guys that I trained really hard with sitting in that fifth spot. It’s pretty unfortunate that they missed their opportunity to come to the Games. That was a pretty big blow.”
Guldemond, who advanced to the event’s semifinals, said he was mostly surprised White pulled out so late, adding that, “I knew it was coming sometime this year.” Asked how he knew, Guldemond declined to comment further.
Toutant was one of two Canadian riders to criticize White’s decision on Wednesday, tweeting in part, “It’s easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win.” Speaking to reporters on Thursday, he tried to elaborate on his comments and defended the course, which many criticized earlier in the week for being dangerously staged.
“I just hope he was here competing with us,” Toutant said. “No matter what, if the setup is sketchy or not, we’re here competing. Just come ride with us. We’re having fun no matter what.
“From the first day the setup wasn’t perfect — a lot of people got scared because the jump wasn’t built perfectly,” he continued. “Second practice was way better. Third practice was actually really fun. I mean, it’s been blue sky every day, no wind. I don’t see why you would not compete. It’s perfect right now. … It’s like, that’s what we snowboard for.”
White is a two-time gold medalist in the halfpipe. But this year’s Winter Games mark the debut of slopestyle, and White was expected to face fierce competition. Toutant said he hopes White’s decision to pull out doesn’t impact how the event is perceived.
“It’s like, whoever’s going to win gold, some people are going to be like, ‘Oh, if Shaun was there, he would’ve won,’” Toutant said.
Fellow Canadian rider Charles Reid said: “Shaun’s another competitor. He dominates in pipe, for sure, but I think in slopestyle we’re really strong. Everybody’s so strong that he’s like another rider. I don’t think he’s the one to look at in the slopestyle. He’s definitely a good rider. It’s sad that he pulled out because it maybe [would] show the world that we can do it the same. We can be as strong as him.”
Several riders who competed in Thursday’s early heats defended the course at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, saying organizers have made improvements the past several days. “That’s totally normal. Every course you show up, it’s not perfect,” Guldemond said. “You make your changes and hope for the best on the competing days. It’s really normal. They did a good job.”
“I think the media kind of blew the dangerousness of the course up quite a bit,” he continued. “Everything that we’ve done here is completely normal. It’s the second-best course of the year, compared to X-Games. I’m happy with it. They did a good job.”