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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – They grabbed, pawed, frothed, hopeful he might deign to make eye contact or maybe even snap a selfie. For nearly two hours following his Olympic gold medal-winning run in snowboard halfpipe, Shaun White, in the midst of television appearances and radio hits, never ignored the cadre of fans who stayed to pay homage for too long. Every few minutes, he acknowledged them, and they roared back. Eventually he veered toward those who braved the frigid air. The reaching arms almost swallowed him. Personal space does not exist in cults of personality.
Halfway across the world, those who don’t deify White struggled to reconcile what he’d done Wednesday morning – throw arguably the greatest run in halfpipe snowboarding history – with what he’d allegedly done in previous years. The 100th Winter Olympics gold medalist in American history – according to a lawsuit by Lena Zawaideh, the former drummer in his band, that White later settled – texted her pictures of penises. He showed her video of a couple having sex on top of a bear that the man had shot dead and another “hardcore porn” video involving a priest, a nun and feces when she was 17 or 18 years old. He allegedly forced her to drink vodka. He insisted she change her look and wardrobe, once threatening to send her home because he didn’t like a fleece sweater she had worn. He stuck his hands down his pants, then shoved them in her face to smell them, the lawsuit alleged.
“After losing at the Olympics [in 2014],” the lawsuit said, “White became increasingly hostile and threatening, especially toward Zawaideh.”
White, who admitted to sending the texts but denied other allegations, has acknowledged being in a dark place following his fourth-place finish in the Sochi Games and cast his gold medal in PyeongChang, the third of his Olympic career, as the denouement of a redemptive arc. White refused to address questions about the lawsuit, calling it “gossip.” “I am who I am,” he said. “And I’m proud of who I am. And my friends love me and vouch for me, and I think that stands on its own.”
As the fallout of the #MeToo movement reverberates across America, cases such as White’s can confuse those who want to appreciate achievement and yet find themselves abhorred by the behavior of those who achieve. Almost immediately White supporters cast aspersions on Zawaideh, who, when reached by Yahoo Sports, referred questions to a public-relations handler. Her lawsuit, which originally was filed seeking payment for wages she alleges White withheld, later was amended with the sexual-harassment allegations and eventually was settled in May 2017, covered nearly a half-decade of abusive behavior.
“She continued to acquiesce,” the lawsuit said, “since she did not want to cause injuries to the band or be fired by White.”
Only when The Cut and Slate reminded of the suit did the public stir, and even then it did not warrant mentioning on NBC’s coverage of the halfpipe contest. The network went to great lengths to contrast White’s gold medal-winning run with his failures in Sochi and training accident in October that left him with 62 stitches and a face still bearing the scars of the crash.
Nobody is better at projecting, and protecting, his image than White, who burst onto the national scene as a teenage snowboarding prodigy, won his first gold at 19 years old and had spent the dozen years since parlaying his fame into riches never before seen in snowboarding. He wasn’t just the sport’s face; he was the sport. The narrative of normalcy he has tried to craft consistently ran into the reality that among his peers, he was actively disliked, partially because of the seriousness with which he takes competitions and also because of inherent jealousy over his talent and wealth.
“I live these dual lives of being this normal guy in L.A. and hanging out and playing music with friends, and I’m a good friend – I’ll help you move your furniture into the house – and then all of a sudden I’m on the mountain,” White said. “One is always taking over the other. So I’ve never really had the time to enjoy the simple things in life. And that was really tormenting me during the run up to Sochi.”
At 31, White never has been better as a snowboarder. In second place going into his final run, he started with a frontside double-cork 1440, his body twisting and turning four times, and followed with a cab double-cork 1440, in which he led with his non-dominant foot and launched himself backward for four revolutions. Never before had White stomped back-to-back 1440s. He followed with a huge 540, then closed with his signature Tomahawk and another double-cork 1260. His score of 97.75 bested the 95.25 of Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who took silver, and bronze medalist Scotty James of Australia.
“It’s the best halfpipe run I’ve seen in the history of the sport,” said J.J. Thomas, White’s coach. “And then you take into account the crashes he endured to get there, the personal story behind it – it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
The October crash in New Zealand and the return from Sochi gave Thomas, NBC and the others who benefit from the business that is Shaun White a perfect story to sell – and for those happy to play customer. The decision to ignore the past is an active one – “We’re here to talk about the gold medal and the amazing day we had today,” a U.S. Ski and Snowboarding association spokesman said – and only invites more questions of White.
He will continue to be a towering figure in the snowboarding community, as he owns a majority share in the Air + Style festival, and he alluded to possibly participating in skateboarding at the Tokyo Games in 2020. To act like the PyeongChang Games exist in a vacuum is hubristic, and to separate action and actor is impossible. The Olympics and White are part of a greater world, one in which norms are changing and a culture that once allowed mistreatment of women is no longer acceptable.
“White made jokes in front of the other band members,” Zawaideh’s lawsuit read, “about how he could ‘get away’ with sexual harassment and evade a lawsuit.”
She ensured that was not the case. And while her allegations may never be proven irrefutably true, they resurfaced on the day that was supposed to personify Shaun White’s glorious return to greatness. In a small pocket of South Korea, to a small group of people whose love for him knew no bounds, he delivered. To so many who saw the text messages, read the allegations, the notion of redemption was nothing more than a canard to distract from a far uglier story.
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