KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Shaun White pulled out of the Olympic slopestyle contest Wednesday, about 24 hours after being banged up on a course that riders are criticizing as unduly harsh.
White issued a statement, saying that after much deliberation, he has decided to forgo the new snowboarding event and concentrate on halfpipe, where he will try for his third straight gold medal next week.
“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,” White said.
Considered among the favorites in the new Olympic event, White jammed his left wrist during practice Tuesday, and when he came off the slopestyle course, he called it “a little intimidating.”
White’s stunning decision — withdrawing from an event added to the program in part to increase his exposure on the world’s biggest stage — is yet another blow for the still-to-start Sochi Games, which have been wracked by security threats, political fighting and the loss of at least one other headliner, injured American skier Lindsey Vonn.
Slopestyle is a speed-packed trip down the mountain, filled with rails, bumps and, most notably, steeply angled jumps that allow riders to flip two, sometimes three times, before landing. White hurt his wrist on one of the takeoff ramps, which one top rider, Canadian Mark McMorris, said were built “kind of obnoxiously tall.”
White has been dealing with a number of nagging injuries during a winter in which he was one of the few riders trying to compete in both events. The wrist added to a list that includes his shoulder and ankle, both injured during qualifying events for the U.S. team.
His focus will now solely be on next Tuesday’s contest in the halfpipe, which is essentially a hollowed-out ice shell with 22-foot (7-meter) sidewalls. There is danger there, but unlike slopestyle, it’s based mostly on the types of head-over-heels tricks the riders try and not the setup of the pipe.
In a news conference about an hour before he gave first word of his decision to the “Today” show, White was asked whether halfpipe was more important to him.
“For me, I definitely feel the halfpipe carries a bit more weight, a bit more pressure. I guess that’s fair enough to say,” he said.
He is trying to become the first male American to win three straight golds in the Winter Games.
White deemed his jammed wrist as nothing serious and said reports about it were overblown. But he said there remained serious issues with the slopestyle course.
“There are definitely concerns about the course,” he said. “It’s been interesting to see how it’s developed and changed over the past couple days. The big question is if it will continue to change. Because every day, they have riders meetings and they give feedback. Sometimes there’s changes, sometimes there’s not.”
Reaction came from several corners, not all of them positive.
“Mr. White... It’s easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win,” Canadian rider Sebastian Toutant tweeted.
White’s prospects for slopestyle were uncertain, at best. He’s the five-time Winter X Games champion, though he more or less gave up the event about six years ago to focus solely on the halfpipe. But he hurt his ankle on the halfpipe in the season’s first Olympic qualifier, then bashed his shoulder during a nasty fall in slopestyle about a month later.
He pulled out of events, changed his mind about the X Games — considered the biggest snowboarding event outside of the Olympics — a few times before skipping that, as well. In all, it has been a hectic lead-up period as he tried to juggle both events, and it didn’t stop once he reached Russia. The slopestyle final is set for Saturday, which would cost him the first day of practice on the halfpipe.
“It’s tough juggling both events,” White said during the news conference. “Definitely not easy. It’s something that’s been talked about quite a bit. Losing a day of practice is a serious thing, especially with a new course and the challenges I’d face in slopestyle.”
He said watching the injuries pile up on the course didn’t build much confidence.
Another top rider, Torstein Horgmo of Norway, was forced out after breaking his collarbone during practice Monday. On Tuesday, Finnish rider Marika Enne was carted off the course with a concussion.
Many riders said the dangers of the course were being overblown — “There’s no way this course is too dangerous,” American Sage Kotsenburg said.
Others, however, admitted they were having a tough time.
“It’s a little intense, a little challenging,” said American rider Jamie Anderson, a gold-medal favorite on the women’s side. “The jumps are still a little weird. I’m having a questionable time getting used to them. But I’m just being slow, patient, taking them one jump at a time.”
American Nick Goepper, a favorite in the skiing version of slopestyle, was surprised by White’s news.
“He’s a notable person and he probably would have brought more viewers to slopestyle,” Goepper said. “But it opens the door for other athletes, and if anything, it means he’s going to come back in four years and be even more prepared for slopestyle.”