KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Thursday's Olympic debut of men's snowboard slopestyle was a bumpy one. It began with more talk about who wasn't competing than the 29 riders who were, and it ended with the gold-medal favorite staring, shell-shocked, into a throng of reporters as he tried to explain why the judges believed he had come up short.
In the media mixed zone before the event, the buzz was all about Shaun White, who announced on Wednesday that he was withdrawing from slopestyle competition to focus on halfpipe. But while he wasn't at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in body, he certainly was in spirited questions about how his competitors felt about their White-less Olympic debut.
"I'm bummed he pulled out," said Canadian rider Max Parrot, who qualified straight into Saturday's final with the highest score of the day, a 97.5. (His first-run score of 91.75 would have been good enough to send him to finals as well, in fourth place.) "I haven't had a chance in the last year to compete against him. I showed up with two golds at X Games and would have loved to compete against him here."
Parrot's teammate, Sebastian Toutant, who also qualified straight to finals, was critical of White's decision a day ago on Twitter, but said his since-deleted post was misinterpreted by his followers. "I posted what I had to say and deleted it," he says. "People took it the wrong way. I wasn't hating on Shaun. Everybody wants to compete with him and prove you can do better than him. He's dominated halfpipe for a long time, but here, he's the underdog. So I'm sad he chose to pull out."
Underdog, maybe. But White has the tricks. And at the final Grand Prix qualifier in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., he proved he can land a slopestyle run when he needs to, which is why his competitors were itching to compete against him in Sochi. If they win, they want to do so against the best field, not the best field minus one.
"He's going for three golds in a row, and it's a lot of stress," says U.S. rider Sage Kotsenburg, who will compete in Saturday's semifinal along with teammates Chas Guldemond and Ryan Stassel. "He knew the stress he was getting into, but I'd rather see him win gold over there [in halfpipe] than do mediocre in both events."
And while White has the most mainstream draw of any athlete in the event, slopestyle has existed without him for much of the past eight years; that's the last time he won an X Games slopestyle contest and certainly the last time he was the only rider to beat. He didn't compete at X Games this year, and the contest was one of the best and most progressive in history.
White's presence in any field elevates the level of competition. But make no mistake: The Olympic slopestyle field is no lesser because of White's subtraction. Triples, for better or worse, are now the norm, and it was Parrot who recently became the first rider to land two of them back-to-back to win slopestyle at the 2014 X Games. With the level of riding here in Sochi, it might take the same combo to win Saturday.