Shaun White is a superstar in slopestyle, a snowboarding event where athletes fly down a mountain over rails, bumps and steep jumps that allow them to flip in the air up to three times before landing.
But even for Mr. White, the Sochi slopestyle course is a jump too far, or at least too steep. Citing safety concerns, the American pulled out on the eve of competition.
Dubbed the “Flying Tomato” for his flowing red locks, Mr. White said his decision was based on safety and his desire to concentrate on the half pipe event next week, which he has won at the two previous Winter Games.
“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 part of,” he said in a statement released Wednesday.
The Sochi slopestyle course had already gotten a reputation for being particularly difficult and some said even dangerous after a top rider from Norway, Torstein Horgmo, broke his collarbone in training on Monday. And Finland’s Merika Enne’s suffered a suspected concussion when she crashed during a training run on Tuesday.
Mr. White also suffered an injury, jamming a wrist during training and officials later agreed to modify the course. But he still didn’t deem it safe.
Snowboard slopestyle has been a fixture in the popular X Games and became an Olympic event for the first time in Sochi, as the International Olympic Committee seeks to broader its reach to a younger audience. Half pipe by contrast is relatively more sedate with boarders travelling down a tunnel-like course rising up over the embankments to do twists and flips.
Mr. White said that with the practice runs he’d taken, “even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on. There are definitely concerns about the course … It has been interesting to see how it’s developed and changed over the past couple days. The big question is if it will continue to change. Because every day, they have riders meetings and they give feedback. Sometimes, there’s changes, sometimes there’s not.”
The slopestyle event was billed as one of the showcase matchups of the Winter Olympics, a brash, young Canadian prairie boy taking on the established superstar from the United States in an epic battle.
But Mr. White’s withdrawal leaves Regina-born Mark McMorris to wonder about what might have been in Saturday’s finals.
Some have not taken Mr. White’s decision well, notably two of Mr. McMorris’s Canadian teammates; Sebastien Toutan and Maxence Parrot. Both took to Twitter on Wednesday to mock the American.
“Shaun knows he won’t be able to win the slopes, that’s why he pulled out. He’s scared!” tweeted Mr. Parrot.
“Mr. White … It’s easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win,” Mr. Toutant tweeted.
Mr. Parot later withdrew his tweet and offered a kind of apology. “I’m sorry if I [offended] anybody. I just meant that it’s not as fun to compete at the Olympics when the riders under lights aren’t there,” he said on Twitter.
Mr. White certainly has a lot at stake in Sochi. He is already the most recognizable snowboarder in the world and largely the reason the Olympics added snowboarding events. He has a chance here to solidify his status as an icon in the sport. No American has won three straight gold medals at the Winter Olympics and given his age, 27, this is likely his last chance. A third gold would also bolster his already long list of product endorsements, which includes a line of clothing at Target, snowboards, sunglasses, boots, backpacks and even thermal underwear.
Mr. McMorris too has much at stake. Just 20 years old, he is seen as Mr. White’s fiercest rival and someone who could take over the mantel as the top snowboarder in the world. He also came into Sochi banged up, suffering a broken rib during the X Games last week. And he too found the Sochi course tricky, saying the takeoff ramp had been built “kind of obnoxiously tall.”
In an interview before the Olympics, Mr. McMorris mused about his rivalry with Mr. White, saying the two didn’t know each other well and that it had probably been largely overblown by the press. When asked about the pressure of competing at the Olympics he replied: “Sure there is pressure. But it’s still snowboarding.”