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The cork, the judgment and the GOAT: the day snowboarding changed forever

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ZHANGJIAKOU, China — There are certain days in sports history where you can plant a stake in the ground — or, in this case, snow — and classify everything as either happening before or after that moment. The moment Joe Fortenberry became the first man to slam-dunk a ball in the NBA. The moment Tiger Woods first slipped on a green jacket at Augusta. And now, for snowboarding, the moment Ayumu Hirano landed a triple-cork in an Olympic halfpipe competition.

Moments don’t get much more storybook perfect than this. Literally minutes after Shaun White, snowboarding’s GOAT, rode the last halfpipe ride of his career, Hirano — needing the run of his life to claim a gold at the Beijing Olympics — pulled off the first successful triple cork in victory. It was the signature moment of a landmark day in the sport’s history. No matter what happens in snowboarding from this point forward, what happened on a remote hillside in China on Feb. 11, 2022, will always play a role.

The triple cork — full name: frontside triple cork 1440 — has long been something of a holy grail in snowboarding. Consisting of three flips and four total rotations, the triple cork has lured many hopeful snowboarders to their doom … or, at least, the end of their medal hopes.

The problem with the triple cork is this: rotating four times in the air takes a long time, and in order to buy that much time out of a halfpipe, you’ve got to be 1) going very fast when launching into the air and 2) going extremely high in the air to pull off the trick. Halfpipes at the elite level aren’t small — the one in the Olympics is 22 feet high — and even the slightest miscalculation of any element of the trick can lead to, best case, the end of your run.

Shaun White spent substantial time attempting the triple cork in the early 2010s. He put himself into the hospital with one wreck, and nearly cracked his pelvis with another. That was enough to convince him to shelve it and focus on other tricks that would eventually win him gold in PyeongChang in 2018.

Feb 11, 2022; Zhangjiakou, China; Ayumu Hirano (JPN) and Shaun White (USA) during the snowboarding men's halfpipe final of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games at Genting Snow Park. (Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports)
Feb 11, 2022; Zhangjiakou, China; Ayumu Hirano (JPN) and Shaun White (USA) during the snowboarding men's halfpipe final of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games at Genting Snow Park. (Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports)

 

But the siren song of the triple cork lurked out there, calling to younger, more daring riders. Another problem with the triple cork: it was thought to be impossible to work into a five- or six-trick routine because of the technical complexity involved in both the run-up and run-out. Doing a triple cork in a single-trick exhibition is one thing. Doing it in competition? Impossible.

And then came October 2021, and a meeting of snowboarding’s finest at Saas-Fee in Switzerland. Hirano and multiple others began landing the triple cork into airbags, serving notice that they possessed both the hell-with-it spirit and the physical chops to pull it off. Hirano even attempted it in the middle of a run at a Dew Tour stop in December, but failed on his next trick.

Which brings us around to Friday at Genting Snow Park. White’s impending retirement grabbed international headlines coming into the day, but the finals were setting up as a heavyweight fight between Hirano and Australia’s Scotty James, two of the finest talents who grew up in White’s long shadow.

Hirano qualified first two days earlier, which put him in the key 12th position for Friday’s three final runs. He had the luxury of watching every rider ahead of him, and when James — in the 11th position — couldn't hold on after just two tricks, Hirano saw his chance.

He dropped into the halfpipe and then — as if to destroy any sense of drama — unfurled a triple cork off the sunny side of the pipe. The crowd, and the loud Japanese team contingent, oooh'ed in admiration. But once again, Hirano couldn’t quite hold the run, and fell after his fourth trick.

Hirano and James’ falls gave White the room he needed to briefly move up into second place during the second round, but when James stood at the top of the halfpipe, the game changed. He and Hirano needed to land this run to avoid putting immense pressure on themselves in the final run. James delivered a beauty that included two 1260s (three-and-a-half rotations) and two 1440s (four full rotations), but without a triple cork.

ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA - FEBRUARY 11: Shaun White of Team United States shows emotion after finishing fourth during the Men's Snowboard Halfpipe Final on day 7 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at Genting Snow Park on February 11, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA - FEBRUARY 11: Shaun White of Team United States shows emotion after finishing fourth during the Men's Snowboard Halfpipe Final on day 7 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at Genting Snow Park on February 11, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

“It's a lot of spinning,” James said. “A little dizzy, if it looks like I'm a little confused doing this interview, but I was really happy and thrilled to put that down ... It's the most technical run I've ever done in my life, and that was my vision today.”

The pressure shifted to Hirano, and he responded by reeling off a second triple cork — and this time landing it and finishing the run, the first time that had ever been done in Olympic competition. As miraculous as it was, though, it apparently came at a moment when the judges were getting a snack. How else to explain how Hirano’s routine, which also included two 1440s and two 1260s, ended up with a score lower than James?

NBC called it a travesty, and the Japanese team at Genting Park agreed, loudly booing the judges’ decision when it flashed onto the enormous screen at the bottom of the mountain. Commentator Todd Richards was particularly perturbed, going so far as to say the judges "grenaded all their credibility" and labeling it "triple-gate."

Up on the mountain, Hirano seethed. He knew he’d done enough to top James’ score, but the judges apparently didn’t agree. So, back to work.

Ahead of them, White fell on his third and final run, and rode into history. Then James, who had already secured himself at least a silver medal, lost momentum and couldn’t quite close out his final run.

That left it all on the board of Hirano. He’d landed two triple corks already this day, two more than anyone had ever done in the entire history of the Olympics, and all he had to show for it was a second-place standing. So he did what, until this day, was unthinkable — a third triple cork — and this time, the judges were paying attention. Hirano’s 96.00 topped James’ 92.50, and the halfpipe gold now belongs to Japan.

“I did what I wanted to do right at the end,” he said afterward, through a translator. “I wasn't able to accept the second run's score, but I managed to express my anger well at the end.”

“It really came down to the last run,” James said. “I expected to have a really good battle with Ayumu and everyone in the rest of the field. It really could have been anyone's today, that was the most exciting thing for our sport and what we're doing moving forward.”

What does that “forward” look like, now that triple corks are the price of entry for a gold medal … and, by 2026, likely a podium? Snowboarding has entered a new phase, and what won yesterday might not even medal today.

“With triple corks, I think we’ve reached a limit,” bronze medalist Jan Scherrer of Switzerland said. “I don’t think there’s going to be quadruple corks. But there’s so much space for progression, so many combinations of tricks that have never been done. It’s going to be a thing for the future.”

The future began on Friday.

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 11 : Ayumu Hirano of Team Japan wins the gold medal during the Olympic Games 2022, Men's Snowboard Halfpipe Classic on February 11, 2022 in Zhangjiakou China. (Photo by Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 11 : Ayumu Hirano of Team Japan wins the gold medal during the Olympic Games 2022, Men's Snowboard Halfpipe Classic on February 11, 2022 in Zhangjiakou China. (Photo by Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)