Snowboarding Needs White
Published: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Updated: Thursday, February 13, 2014 23:02
It is no surprise that Shaun White, even in defeat, is the major story of the 2014 Winter Olympics thus far. Before White, snowboarding held a niche audience; now, his name overshadows all others who enter the growing scene of extreme sports. That includes new half pipe gold medalist Iouri “iPod” Podladtchikov — a deserving winner whose signature “YOLO flip” proved too difficult for White and all other competitors to master.
What is shocking is how much of the story in Sochi pertains to White’s unpopularity within his sport — a stark contrast from a man so singularly championed by the public at large. But in retrospect, it seems only natural that White might find himself alone at the top — particularly since his competitive nature clashes with the bro-like culture of snowboarding championed by other riders. This competitiveness is both a gift and a curse. It has propelled him to literal heights no one else can reach in snowboarding, but it has also fostered cold relations with fellow riders.
White is the first to admit that his social skills are not his strong suit. His inability to temper his competitiveness is seen clearly in his poor handling of a loss to rival and friend Kevin Pearce in the documentary “The Crash Reel.”
When White dropped out of the slopestyle event in Sochi last weekend, the backlash was strong and unrelenting. For fellow riders, it was an opportunity to unleash their collective frustration with White. He decided to focus on his top event — the half pipe — after determining the slopestyle course unsafe, citing numerous crashes during practice by experienced riders (himself included).
But slopestyle favorites called him a chicken, saying he dropped out because he knew he could not win. 15-year-old American Kyle Mack called White out on Twitter for taking a spot in the Olympics that could have gone to him. 18-year-old Brandon Davis — the rider most likely to have won White’s spot — was more forgiving and said “I do feel bad for him in the sense he’s getting so much backlash for what he’s doing. I don’t believe he deserves it that harsh ... the whole snowboarding community doesn’t really like Shaun. But ultimately, he is the face of our sport; there’s no point in hating him so hard. He’s the hardest working guy in our sport. And he certainly deserves respect.”
The only other notable defender of White is the man who usurped him. Iouri Podladtchikov’s burgeoning fame has given him an insight into the kind of attention and pressure that has been thrust upon White all these years. “I’ve hung out with him, gone out with him, known him over the years,” Podladtchikov said.“I have a little better insight because I’ve grown and gotten more attention too. But it’s not comparable to his. And considering how hard it is for me — I look at him, and I’m almost surprised to see him handle it like that. He makes it look easy.”
But where Podladtchikov empathizes with White and is not bitter about the attention he has received, other riders have been icy to say the least. None more so than Danny Davis, White’s American teammate, who, like many White detractors, cannot seem to reconcile the higher profile, White has brought to the sport with its laidback roots. Davis yearns for the purity of snowboarding — shredding the slopes and exploring the backcountry — and is obviously displeased with the current focus on contest scores and merchandise.
While this desire to represent the purity of snowboarding is admirable, the position Davis has put himself in is one of hypocrisy. He wants snowboarding’s image to be about carefree backcountry exploring, free of marketing and ruthless competition, yet he brings up these points as he participates in the bastion of all competitions — the Olympics. The sole purpose of competing here is to win — a sentiment that Shaun White and “iPod” have expressed unapologetically.
“[White]’s insanely talented. He has worked very hard,” Davis said. “You can’t hate him for that. I hate to talk too much s- - - on him because he’s not a bad person. He’s just different than me. I truly love snowboarding.”
Davis loves one side of snowboarding, but he needs to recognize that the need to be the best — to do things no one else can on a snowboard — is a valid passion, and that his participation in the Olympics makes him complicit in this passion.
Davis also resents that White’s popularity has fed into merchandise and branding: “The thing with Shaun is, he’s got a line at Target, which is great to get kids into Shaun White and snowboarding. But it’s tough when you don’t give too much back to snowboarding.” Davis said. However, intentionally or not, White’s presence has “given back” to snowboarding 10 times over, causing a spike in popularity and expanding the market so that guys like Davis can make a profitable career from the sport that they love.
Regardless of their opinions of White as a person, the snowboarding community needs to respect not just White’s impressive skills and hard work, but also all he has done to increase the popularity of the sport. After all, Shaun may promote himself and his brand, but Davis certainly isn’t complaining about the money he gets from Mountain Dew and all of his other high-profile sponsors.
Darius Majd is a junior in the College. THE SPORTING LIFE appears every Friday.