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The yin and yang of Shaun White: The public loves him; many of his peers can't stand him

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

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Did Shaun White make the right decision?

Did Shaun White make the right decision?

Did Shaun White make the right decision?

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Inside the insular snowboarding community, they chuckled here Wednesday. Shaun White pulled out of the Olympics' snowboarding slopestyle competition citing the danger of the course and the desire to defend his halfpipe gold medal, to which the reply at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park went something like: Of course he did. Such a Shaun maneuver.

Nowhere else in sports does such a grand chasm exist between public and industry perception of an athlete as it does with Shaun White. To the world, he is the best snowboarder, the charismatic carrot top who seems bigger than the sport. To the snowboarding community, he is not so much a sellout as the prodigal son for whom they're waiting to come home, only they know deep down that he won't.

The line between cynicism and truth with White runs board-edge thin, and the two may well have blended with White dropping out of slopestyle. Much of White's image and brand stem from his grand success in competitions, the sort that the most core snowboarders see as little more than satiating the masses. White had struggled to land the triple-cork jumps expected among slopestyle medalists. For him to begin the Olympics with any sort of disappointment, then, would stand in direct conflict with the aura of winning he not only perpetuates but defends vigorously.

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Shaun White goes off a jump during snowboard slopestyle training at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. (REUTERS)

It is this ethos – this desire to win – that causes tension among White and fellow snowboarding professionals, and for the umpteenth time, at the sport's most high-profile event no less, it reared its ugly head. One top snowboarder told Yahoo Sports the "real" slopestyle competitors found the course at Rosa Khutor a great challenge in practice runs despite a handful of crashes, one of which laid out top contender Torstein Horgmo and another of which White suffered. Another snowboarder who ran the course said with its planned adjustments, including slower rails and smaller jumps for the women, the sense of doom was overblown.

If there is one thing on which White’s supporters and detractors agree, it's that White is an easy target. Almost immediately after White withdrew from slopestyle, a pair of Canadian slopestyle riders ripped him on Twitter. He is the Yankees, the Lakers, Duke – except he wins more. He is richer than perhaps every other snowboarder combined because he owns the pre-teen set. His successes writ large begat failures to those in snowboarding.

"Everybody else is against Shaun," said Iouri Podladtchikov, one of White's toughest competitors in halfpipe and his closest friend among elite snowboarders. "Everybody is jealous. He's got all the money. He's got everything that everyone could wish for.

"What they're really jealous about is that commitment – that mindset that when you wake up, you can't just let time pass. You have this mission in your head. You have these great ideas. You think about putting the run together or going a little higher. Making all those little extras that will work into the direction of your big picture.

"So many of those people that just lean back and hate about him, what they're most jealous about is that they don't have that urge."

[Related: Canadians trash Shaun White for pulling out of slopestyle]

Few share Podladtchikov's sentiment, and perhaps that's because Podladtchikov aspires to the same things White has while others hold the sport in such high esteem they would feel dirty ever putting themselves above it. And that cuts at the heart of the Shaun White dichotomy: Is he in it for snowboarding, or is he in it for Shaun White?

"The thing with Shaun is, he's got a line at Target, which is great to get kids into Shaun White and snowboarding," said American Danny Davis, another top halfpipe competitor. "But it's tough when you don't give too much back to snowboarding."

Davis, as is the case with all of White's competitors, marvels at White's ability on snow. It's the sort they wish he would devote solely to snowboarding, and to promoting those core ideals of riding for fun and camaraderie, instead of empire building. Most snowboarders see the two as mutually exclusive. At the same time, they acknowledge the power of White in drawing kids to the sport, and they struggle to reconcile that with the long-held, difficult-to-break beliefs of a community built on counterculture ideals.

"You can't discredit him," Davis said. "He's insanely talented. He has worked very hard, and those who work hard are often luckier. You can't hate him for that.

"I hate to talk too much [expletive] on him because he's not a bad person. He's just different than me. I truly love snowboarding."

White may too, though he shows it in a different way. His training sessions for the 2010 Vancouver Games in a secret personal halfpipe built for him by Red Bull infuriated other snowboarders who believe in the power of the session, of riders getting together to straight-up shred. They huzzah for great tricks, encourage creativity that bends more toward style than flips and spins, and foster this snowboarding ideal that they want to spread – the sentiment that snowboarders need not hawk gear at big-box stores to grow the sport they love.

The selfish label attached itself to White long ago. As Davis and the crew of riders that called themselves the Frends – there is no I in Frends – provided White with his best competition, they never sensed his desire to join in. He was a prodigy, reared by older riders, hardened by the enormity of his gift and the pressures it bestowed. The marketers stuck their claws in White before he could drive legally, and he fulfilled their every dream. He was the rare celebrity whose substance superseded his style.

"It's a miracle that he's not more of an [expletive]," Podladtchikov said. "I've hung out with him, gone out with him, known him over the years. 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, he's got a couple dozen employees more, all the money, the business – I look at him, and I'm almost surprised to see him handle it like that. He makes it look easy."

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Shaun White (right) listens to Danny Davis (left) during a press conference on Wednesday. (USA TODAY Sports)

In a long New York Times Magazine profile, White vacillated between a man in full control of his behemoth world and a boy still trying to find his place in a society that already believes it knows who he is. His long hair is gone. He's 27 in a sport where 30 is ancient. He said he's trying to be nicer and more thoughtful, and though the same people who figured his dropping out of slopestyle was orchestrated for public salvation might believe the same of such pledges toward maturity, more than a kernel of truth may exist in them.

When Team USA was announcing its halfpipe team, White approached Davis. The 25-year-old is the snowboarder's snowboarder – his style, grace and fun-loving personality marking off all the idyllic boxes. Davis missed the Vancouver Games after drunkenly crashing an ATV and breaking his back and pelvis, and White was left with one fewer legitimate challenger.

"He said something really nice to me when the [2014] Olympic team was being announced: 'It's really nice to have you here this time around. We missed you last time. We're going to have a lot of fun in Sochi.' That's one of the nicer things he's ever said to me," Davis said. "And probably the most at one time he's ever said. That was cool.

"I would love to get him to be our friend and get into the snowboard world more. I think for him, he's such a celebrity, the snowboarding world is small. He's bigger than it. It's easy to target him, hate him because he's the best."

Now that White is out of the slopestyle competition, he can stake such a claim in but one discipline. Which is better than none. Halfpipe snowboarding is the most well-known and well-received and will be the most watched on Feb. 11, remember, because of Shaun White. Complain though they may, snipe though they will, the realistic snowboarders must admit, even through gritted teeth, snowboarding is where it is now thanks to him. Of all the Shaun maneuvers, that might be his greatest.

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