White's decision a surprising one

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- On Wednesday afternoon, Shaun White dropped out of slopestyle at the Olympics. If I had to wager on sentences I would possibly write while in Sochi, I would have bet my apartment that wouldn't be one of them. Sure, White played hokey pokey with the X Games two weeks ago, but this is the Olympics. And this is Shaun White.

At 2:30 p.m. local time, White and his U.S. snowboard halfpipe teammates were introduced to the media in a precompetition news conference. Not surprisingly, the majority of questions were fielded by two-time defending halfpipe champion White. At first, they were all about slopestyle. White was the lone U.S. athlete competing in both halfpipe and slopestyle here in Sochi, and the size and safety of the slopestyle course has been a major topic of international discussion over the past couple of days. White didn't shy away from the questions, but he didn't tip his hand, either.

"There are definitely concerns about the course," White said about its design. "It's been interesting to see how it's developed and changed over the past few days, and the question is if it will continue to change. Every day, they hold a riders' meeting, they get feedback and sometimes there's changes and sometimes there's not. So ..."

But that was his last remark on the slopestyle course. When the reporter attempted to follow up and ask for specifics on what White found lacking in the course design, press officer Nick Alexakos asked the media to focus on the halfpipe. This was, in fact, a halfpipe news conference. "There will be a time and place to speak about the other stuff," he said. "That all right with you, Shaun?"

With that, half of the raised hands in the room slowly lowered.

The scene was a bit odd. White, a rider not known for speaking his mind about course designs and safety, was doing so again a day after he called the course "intimidating" and spoke up about changes he'd like to see made during the riders' meeting. (This is a typical process in slopestyle; jump sizes and angles often change over the course of practices, as designers work with riders, and rarely does a course please everyone. Canadian riders Mark McMorris and Max Parrot called the slopestyle jumps "awesome.") Also odd was that Alexakos had made the exchange so personal. Perhaps it had been decided before the conference that since White would field the majority of questions anyway, slopestyle talk would simply take more time away from the other seven halfpipe athletes.

Throughout the news conference, White seemed distracted and, for lack of a better word, different. When asked if he placed more importance on defending his halfpipe gold medal, he said yes. He has been answering this question since slopestyle was added to the Olympic roster, and as hard as people have tried to steer him toward that "yes" answer in the past, he used to talk about placing equal importance on both events and his goal to win two gold medals in Sochi. On Wednesday, his answer changed. At least his public answer.

When White was asked about how he would deal with his schedule on Saturday (he would have competed in the slopestyle semifinals and finals on the same day as the first halfpipe practice), he fumbled and half-answered the question, talked in circles and then said he was still "mulling over what to do."

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