The American Olympic dream machine is still stuck in neutral, apparently.
On Wednesday, Shaun White announced that he will skip the slopestyle snowboarding event – which is new to the Winter Olympics this year – in order to focus on defending his Olympic title in the halfpipe, which he won in 2006 and 2010. He cited the danger of the slopestyle course, which led to a minor wrist injury during a training run earlier this week.
Make no mistake, NBC will find someone upon whom to hang its coverage. But White's withdrawal from Saturday's slopestyle competition – a wonderfully telegenic event that has riders grinding rails and taking triple-twisting 70-ft. jumps down the mountain – is depriving the US Olympic team of another marquee name before the Olympics even start. Last month, alpine skier Lindsey Vonn pulled out of Sochi because of a knee injury.
White's exit also raises questions about whether Sochi is having a "Nagano moment." When halfpipe snowboarding made its Winter Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, riders essentially called the event a farce. The organizers did not know how to cut a proper halfpipe, they said, and the governing body insisted on a scoring system that was anathema to riders' desire for style and flair to trump cold calculation.
By the 2002 Salt Lake Games, the problems were sorted out. Halfpipe has gone on to become one of the Winter Games' signature events – at least for the American audience.
Here in Sochi, slopestyle riders have made complaints that echo those from Nagano – essentially, that the designer hasn't built a proper course. In this case, they say the course is too hard. After the accident that injured his wrist Tuesday, White said the course needed "a little more of a friendly vibe."
White wasn't even the first top competitor claimed by the course. Norwegian medal favorite Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone in training and will not compete, either.
Complicating the story of his withdrawal, White gave journalists no indication that he was considering pulling out of the event during a press conference only an hour before his announcement. He gave the impression that he was hoping further changes would be made to the course.
"Definitely concerns about the course," he said. "It's been interesting to see how it's developed and changed over the past few days. I guess the big question is if it will continue to change."
Apparently, the answer was no – at least in White's mind. Other riders appear to share his opinion that the course has been improved after feedback from riders, but that it could use further modification.
"They put some wax on the rails, so it's not as slick, and the jumps are still really high, but they made the transition to the jumps way smoother," Canadian rider Sebastian Toutant told the Globe and Mail. "I still think they could cut the jumps down a little bit, so it makes a smoother transition."
NBC's "Today" show reports that Finland’s Roope Tonteri said the course was "pretty sketchy," adding, "I just don’t want to get injured. It’s not a really fun course to ride."
The complaints come as something of a surprise given that snowboarding's governing body, the International Ski Federation (FIS), has organized countless slopestyle events in the past. The Sochi course designer, Swede Anders Forsell, has likewise "developed many previous courses for the FIS World Cup and World Championship," according to a press release when the course design was announced last August. Moreover, the press release says the course design process included "collecting athlete's comments."
Regardless, riders' comments this week are not the sort that Sochi organizers or FIS want to hear, especially four years after a unusually tough luge track led to the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. Nor does the International Olympic Committee want to lose a rider with the television wattage of White.
"The difficult decision to [forgo] slopestyle is not one I take lightly as I know how much effort everyone has put into holding the slopestyle event for the first time in Olympic history, a history I had planned on being a part of," White said in a statement.
NBC's slim, slim silver lining? In a sign that he knew whom he was disappointing most, White released the statement exclusively to "Today."