When three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White snagged the top spot in the snowboarding half-pipe Tuesday night, he erupted into happy tears – and much of the Internet rejoiced with him. White had, commentators noted, cemented his legacy as the greatest snowboarder of all time. The problem was, as a man, he seemed to satisfy today’s definition of “bad.”
In 2016, the drummer in White’s band, Lena Zawaideh, sued him for sexual harassment in a complaint that was later settled out of court. Zawaideh says White sent her pictures of erect penises, forced her to watch videos “sexualizing human fecal matter,” controlled what clothes and lipstick she wore, shoved a bottle of vodka into her mouth and made her chug it, and even once stuck his hands down his pants and then in her face so she could smell them.
These disturbing details should tarnish even the cleanest cab double cork 1440. But they didn’t. Instead even as White replied to a reporter’s question about the allegations by saying “I’m here to talk about the Olympics, not gossip and stuff,” story after story gushed over his remarkable boarding routine without making mention of the scandal. Fans followed suit.
In his apology Wednesday morning for using “a poor choice of words to describe such a sensitive subject,” White said he had “grown as a person over the years” and seemed confident the hullabaloo was little more than a hiccup – nothing worse than a second-run fall trying to land the Tomahawk. He may be right.
“REDEMPTION FOR SHAUN WHITE!” NBC’s Twitter account thundered Tuesday in a tweet. The Post’s story on White’s victory speculates that his win was the “sweetest triumph of a career exploding into a second act.” ESPN speculates that White’s work has just begun.
White is not the first guy who, because he is really good at one thing, seems to have gotten away with being horrible about something else. Rob Porter kept his position amid abuse allegations because he was an impressive ringmaster in an administrative circus. When Al Franken fell out of favor, his Democratic defenders wept at the prospect of losing a party star. Dylan Farrow has been saying for years that Woody Allen abused her but, gosh, we just loved watching those films.
The argument about all these men has been that they’re actually far from irreplaceable. Surely someone who hasn’t allegedly beat two ex-wives could schedule meetings in the West Wing. Surely progressive politics can produce a charismatic presidential contender who doesn’t think it’s funny to mime groping women’s breasts. Surely there are moviemakers who can capture New York and all its neuroses who don’t prey on their stepchildren.
With White, it’s more complicated. He is, definitionally, the best of all time, and he has the medals to prove it. America has the medals to prove it. This explains why so many are willing to gloss over all White’s griminess: It’s not only political partisans or studio execs who want to preserve a pristine image of White in all his gold-plated glory. It’s the whole country.
The Olympics offer an opportunity for us to win on the world stage, without the complications and bloodshed that come with real wars. Those who possess the requisite physical prowess to compete serve as avatars of America. We need to imagine they share our values because their victories are our victories.
This mind-set allows us to ignore the harm an athlete like White may have done to others. It also lets us ignore the harm the Olympics can do to an athlete. Figure skater Adam Rippon told the New York Times he ate only three slices of whole-grain bread a day while training in 2016. Michael Phelps shared his struggle with depression a few months ago. That’s not to mention the countless cases of abuse of young competitors in the USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics organizations, the latter of which debacles culminated in disgraced doctor Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing in January.
These tales and White’s reveal a biennial all-American blindness. Desperate in a divided country to find something that unites us – a contest that prompts even the least jingoistic to turn on their TVs and root for Team USA – we put aside pesky problems like a history of bigotry, or corruption, or even child molestation to stare enraptured at the superhuman athletes who seem to embody the best of us. We can’t bear to think that these athletes are just as human as the rest of us, or that some of them also embody the worst.