KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — By the time Shaun White's second run through the men's halfpipe final fell apart and his reign as Olympic champion was over, you could all but feel the joy surge through the mountain air here. Well, at least among some.
Almost no one likes Shaun White anymore. Or so it seems. At least some of his fellow riders act that way, even though they owe the size of their corporate sponsorships to the redhead from San Diego.
Somewhere along the way he became too big, too corporate, too selfish, too good, or too whatever. Or maybe he was always that way, but grew human enough on the board that the others no longer feared taking shots at him. Maybe it's generational. Whatever it was, in private or public, the feeling here was clear.
"You know it's good for snowboarding, man," American teammate Danny Davis said of White finishing fourth, far behind winner Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland. "The world knows now that there are other snowboarders besides Shaun. It's great, man, because there are a bunch of good riders in our sport and they deserve some credit, too."
Deserved or not, this is reality. Even coming in fourth was met with scorn, another judging favor for White. They claimed he deserved lower.
"Well, fourth was a gift, first of all," Davis noted, feeling no hesitation at smacking Shaun — even though Davis himself crashed twice, finished 10th and called the entire night "rats … a bummer."
If this was the end for White at the Olympics — he'll be 31 in 2018 — then it wasn't pretty.
A bad couple runs amid a week full of bad competitor comments. Two Canadians called him out earlier in the Games for dropping out of the slopeside event. They said his cited reason (a dangerous course) was really just a fear of losing.
And now Tuesday felt like a night not just to celebrate Podladtchikov, but the start of a whole new era.
The entire thing was surreal, of course, because this enterprise owes White a debt of gratitude. This is one of the biggest nights of the Olympics in part because of his ability to break through to the mainstream masses. The primetime lights and array of global TV cameras here don't happen without him. And forget all the level of sponsorship and prize money in the pro ranks.
There'd certainly be snowboarding without Shaun White. It just wouldn't be as rich and as popular.
Or consider 10-year-old Ben Hughes of St. Louis, a leukemia survivor standing in the front row here at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. During his 2 1/2-year run of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he made a request of the Make-A-Wish Foundation: He wanted to come to the Sochi Games, and he wanted to watch Shaun White snowboard.
[Photos: The best of the men’s halfpipe final]
And so here he was, with his mom, Liz, right behind him, a sister, brother and father taking turns by his side.
During those years he was sick, Ben watched Shaun soar through the air. He drew inspiration. He found something to cling to. And when the doctors finally said Ben was cancer free and cleared him to attempt to snowboard himself, off the family went to the local Hidden Valley Resort, a small ski area in suburban St. Louis, where like his idol, "I get some air," Ben said with a smile.
Maybe it's not White's signature double corks, but … "small air," Ben said.
So the Hughes family stood all day in the snow, watching prelims, semifinals and at last the medal round, 10 hours straight. "Just one bathroom break," Liz said of her son. Earlier, after qualifying, White came through the media area, leaped the fence and went and said hello to the kid.
"I remember being that age, and I know he is a Make-a-Wish," White said later.
"It was pretty cool," Ben said.
"I don't know if I've ever see him smile bigger," Liz said. "It was a dream come true. Oh, my, for him to be able to get to visit with Shaun White."
And so this is the other side. Maybe the other riders see White as just a marketing campaign taken to the extreme, too big for the sport, too far gone from the core values of this pursuit.
Or maybe a kid making a wish to be here, of any place on the globe, to meet a snowboarder, of all the stars in the world, is what really carries value.
"For me, that's what it's about," White said. "It's the fans. It's the people who came tonight."
It's not that White did anything that nearly anyone else wouldn't also gladly do — the visit was brief and White didn't know Ben's name or his circumstances. He is the one they ask for, though.
"I think I have affected a lot of people," White said. "People who had never seen the sport before and people like that kid. I always want to be more than just a snowboard. This is a big part of who I am, but it's not all of who I am."
[Related: The yin and yang of White's popularity]
So how real is Shaun White?
As real as a 10-year-old burying his head on the rail in near tears after he watched his hero fail to medal, as real as a mom rubbing her son's back in a futile attempt to comfort.
Somehow this simple story — a guy gets so good, so innovative, so charismatic he almost demands the world pay attention to these new-age athletes — became complex.
It's easy to just call out Davis and the others for being selfish or ungrateful, but the internal dynamics aren't fully clear. The backlash against White was broad enough that it didn't feel like petty jealousy. There is something there. They probably didn't turn on their trailblazer for no reason.
White is 27 and he couldn't find a way to win a third consecutive gold. He isn't going to retire. He is still going to make an estimated $15 million a year. He said he's taking a break and heading out on tour with his band.
Yet it's clear the king has been knocked down. No one fears him anymore, everyone is eager for the new day in snowboarding that began, in earnest, Tuesday night. Something happened here, something happened to snowboarding's big star.
Because apparently no one likes Shaun White anymore … except all the little kids who do.
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- Shaun White