Why Snowboarders Hate Shaun White

Five-Ring Circus
A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 11 2014 6:53 PM

Why Snowboarders Hate Shaun White

Shaun White
So hateable.

Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

After a series of runs marked by uncharacteristic falls and slips, American snowboarder Shaun White finished in fourth place in the men’s halfpipe competition in Sochi on Tuesday afternoon. This came as a disappointment to White, who was hoping to win his third consecutive men’s halfpipe gold, and presumably to NBC’s producers, who are now left scrambling to find a new cold-weather American Olympic hero. But the outcome likely thrilled many of Shaun White’s fellow snowboarders, because snowboarders, by and large, hate Shaun White.

Even though White is perhaps the best—and certainly the best-known—snowboarder in the world, he has never fit in with the sport’s mellow bro culture, in which everyone gets along and it’s gauche to admit that you care about victory. Sage Kotsenburg, the shaggy, stubbly American rider who took gold in Saturday’s slopestyle competition, exemplifies snowboarding’s “whatevs” ethos: He bragged that he “winged” the trick that won him the gold, and admitted that, the night before the competition, he “ate a bunch of candy and some chips” and “fell asleep watching Fight Club.”

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But candy and casual brilliance have never been Shaun White’s game. In a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Elizabeth Weil noted that ever since he was a kid, other riders have “resented White for snubbing them, not even pretending they were all friends, an attitude that is central to snowboarding’s self-concept.” Before the Vancouver Olympics, White was criticized for refusing to let other snowboarders train on the expensive halfpipe that was built for him by one of his corporate sponsors. “The whole snowboarding community doesn’t really like Shaun,” American snowboarder Brandon Davis recently told Time. “He’s apart from everyone. He’s the lone wolf. When he goes out there for a contest, he goes out there to win.”

Davis was next in line for the Olympic slopestyle berth that went to White, who pulled out of the event days before it began, citing the danger of the course. White made a calculated decision—one that didn’t work out in the end—that he’d have a better chance to win gold in the halfpipe if he skipped out on slopestyle. A pair of Canadian rivals, Sebastien Toutant and Max Parrot, mocked the American star for thinking so strategically, tweeting that he backed out of slopestyle because he knew he didn’t have a chance to medal. This is how other snowboarders view White: He cares more about winning than about the pure joy of cavorting in the snow. They are absolutely correct.

The tension between White and his fellow competitors is best seen in the fantastic documentary The Crash Reel. That film, which focuses on the aftermath of a severe accident suffered by elite snowboarder Kevin Pearce, also depicts the often-strained relationship between White and Pearce’s Frends crew. (There’s no I in Frends, you see.) Before Pearce started winning contests, he and White were good buddies. That all ended once Pearce became a true rival—White stopped hanging out with his former friend, and stopped sharing tricks of the trade. This is the contrast the film sets up: White is an intense snowboarding robot who cares more about success than human relationships. Pearce loved winning, too, but he cared just as deeply about personal relationships. When Pearce’s sponsors built him a halfpipe, he invited his friends along for the ride.

White may be unusual for a snowboarder, but he’s a standard-issue sports hero. Michael Jordan, Jimmy Connors, and scores of other high-level athletes are known for their almost sociopathic focus on victory. The rise of a White-like figure was inevitable once snowboarding became an Olympic event. The sport’s low-key, we’re-all-friends-here vibe is something that every other sport should aspire to. But when you start handing out gold medals, there’s going to be someone who’s pathologically obsessed with earning that hardware. If snowboarders don’t like White, I have bad news for them: There are going to be a lot more dudes just like him.

Not everyone on the halfpipe thinks White is a bad influence. Iouri Podladtchikov, who beat White to win gold today, said a few days ago that hating on the red-haired champion is “the stupidest thing,” and that White’s detractors are “morons.” For Podladtchikov, White has long been the unreachable standard, the one athlete pushing the sport and his fellow competitors to amazing heights. That’s precisely why his fellow snowboarders should be grateful that Shaun White exists: You need someone who’s fixated on winning to goad everyone else to improve. And that guy is probably not eating candy and watching Fight Club.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.