We had been asked not to call him the Flying Tomato. That was the old Shaun White, you see, pre-brand. That was before he sheared his rock-star red hair, before he suddenly showed up on Esquire’s best-dressed list, before he threatened to break Justin Timberlake’s “(bleeping) skull” in a chick-flick cameo, before the homey snowboarder who was landing Double Cork 1440s and Double McTwist 1260s became a real-live, full-blown global commodity and corporate pitchman.
Asked on TV the other day if he was “dirty, stinking, filthy rich,” White laughed and said, “Yeah, I’m doing OK.” It seemed an odd corporate remake, ammunition for resentment in an extreme-sports community that thinks all competitors — even the breakout star who popularized the X Games and forced us to treat it all seriously — should live in a commune and pass joints forevermore. Was that really Shaun White with shorter hair, in a business suit, attending galas for sponsors and taking meetings at Hollywood studios?
No, it was not. Because this new incarnation of Shaun White, the Flying Capitalist, was last seen falling hard and fading away under the Olympic lights Tuesday in his holy-grail event, the halfpipe. White was challenged by Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchikov — who is not ashamed to go by the nickame “I-Pod” — to match the upstart’s invention, the “Yolo,” which involves two head-over-heel flips, two 360-degree turns and 1,440 degrees of rotation. I-Pod nailed it. White? He took two spills, once on his bulging wallet, then when his board caught the top edge of the pipe. The mistakes left him in 11th place in the final of the halfpipe competition, too far back to recover. He finished fourth, which means one of the compelling daredevils of 21st-century life failed in his mission to become the first American man to win three successful Winter Olympic gold medals in an individual sport.
I liked him better as the Flying Tomato, myself. Is it too late to locate his lost hair? Is he now considered the snowboarding version of Samson? He still has chances for gold in Sochi, but this night felt like a funeral.
“I’m disappointed,” White told reporters. “I hate the fact that I nailed it in practice, but it happens. It’s hard to be consistent. … It didn’t pan out. Tonight was just not my time.”
“I saw videos of Shaun doing it really well,” I-Pod said. “I got bummed and said, `Damn, that’s my trick and he’s doing it better than me. Today, I guess I was doing it a little better.”
It was a popular victory within the inner workings of snowboarding, where White’s mass popularity wasn’t well-received in all quarters. His American teammate, Danny Davis, wasn’t exactly heartbroken. “I think it’s great the American public and the world now knows that there are other snowboarders besides Shaun White,” Davis said, per USA Today. “Shaun, don’t get me wrong, is one of the most talented, one of the best riders there are, but there are guys who are just as good if not better. And today Iouri was the best rider.”
Through his transformation from bohemian to businessman, we presumed nothing would change when White resumed hurling himself into the air, spinning and twisting and flipping and leaving his brain and bone structure vulnerable to high-risk fate. If we once giggled at these high-flying kids as a sort of teenage wasteland, it now seemed time to accept White in the same vein as Michael Phelps, Carl Lewis and Bonnie Blair and other Olympians who have three-peated within their disciplines. In retrospect, we should have seen failure approaching last weekend, when White pulled out of the slopestyle event, saying the course was too dangerous. “With the practice runs I have 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,” he said in a statement. His surprise announcement fed perceptions that he’s all about image these days and led two Canadian rivals, Sebastian Toutant and Maxence Parrot, to question his real motives.
“It’s easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win…,” Toutant tweeted, echoing Parrot’s tweet that White withdrew because he “knows he won’t be able to win.”
If it wasn’t a decision born of cowardice, it did seem an acknowledgment that he was less than invincible and needed to devote full focus and effort to his specialty. If he completed the three-peat, who would remember that he blew off the slopestyle? Besides, he has been dealing with shoulder, ankle and wrist injuries. But the old Shaun White wouldn’t have cared, recalling his frightening crashes through the years, including a 2012 spill when he smacked his head off the hard, packed snow and lost his helmet. No snowboarder ever should criticize another for health reasons, not after Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury in a New Year’s Eve 2009 crash and retired from the sport. There also were concerns about course conditions for the halfpipe — condition of the snow, curves in the walls — and White joined others in voicing criticism, with Olympic champion Hannah Teter saying, “This is going to be showcased to billions of people, and we want the best representation of halfpipe snowboarding. And as of now, it is not to the caliber it should be.”
White also wasn’t acting like himself. In a pre-race video sent to the Associated Press — another nod to his new business ways — he thanked his fans for sticking by him after the slopestyle furor. “You’re the best,” he said. “You support me through the decisions I make, the training regimen. You show up to the contests. You watch it on TV, and I feel it. … I want to do my best, not only for myself but for you guys. Wish me luck and here we go.”
He also thanked his parents, brother and sister, who watched the event.
“That’s what makes me a normal person at the end of the day,” he said. “They don’t care what happens. They don’t care what the media has to say or other riders have to say, or anything about anything. It’s just family.”
The timing of the tape was strange. Where was the bravado? It almost seemed a concession speech of sorts, a hint of impending doom.
So what now for Shaun White? Without the three-peat, the brand fades, and the buzz now surrounds a Swiss Army Knife of a snowboarder who has a cool nickname and cooler jump, Yolo being short for You Only Live Once. “I feel like fainting,” Podladtchikov said. “Everything came together exactly the way I planned. On this run, it felt like it was all meant to be and I was in this position where I’m throwing down my hardest tricks with ease. There’s no words for that.”
Cool. That’s what the extreme-sports business is about, who’s cool.
Shaun White? Very quickly, he got old.