Two days after Norway’s Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone while trying to land a rail and a day after Finland’s Marika Enne suffered a concussion attempting to land a routine jump, Shaun White bowed out of the Olympic Slopestyle Snowboard competition. The favorite and two-time gold medalist expressed regret, issuing a statement saying, “the decision to forgo slopestyle is not one I take lightly,” adding that he was concerned about the safety of the Sochi course. He wasn’t the first snowboarder to complain about the terrain and he likely won’t be the last.
White’s exit is a black eye for the planners responsible for the Winter Games, who were hyping the debut of a new, TV-friendly sport featuring a bon afide international celebrity. The run was supposed to be the perfect stage for slopestyle’s star turn, a long and winding slow burner with three elaborate rail elements and three massive jumps. But Roger McCarthy, who designed and oversaw the construction of Sochi’s new slalom courses, says he isn’t surprised by White’s complaints.
“There is a consultant over there that runs a business called Ski Expert and he can’t find his ass with both hands,” he says. “If they pulled someone out of Europe, that might have been the problem. You need someone out of Whistler or Breckenridge or one of these other western mountains that have the best guys.”
The Sochi planners tapped Anders Forsell of Sweden’s Snowpark Consulting to design the course and used local labor during construction. Forsell is an experienced builder and, at the time, his selection wasn’t controversial. But now more experts are voicing concerns that he may have been the wrong choice.
“All the best terrain-park builders reside in the U.S. and Canada,” says T.J. Dawoud, who designed the Olympic Qualifier course on Mammoth Mountain. “I think it’s just that the western U.S. and Whistler have led the industry so long. Terrain parks were born out here.”
If Forsell was the wrong man for the job, he was also at a disadvantage from day one. Sochi isn’t a big snowboarding town, which means there were very few serious riders trying out and critiquing the course. According to Dawoud, that sort of communication is a critical part of the course-building process, because someone has to be the guinea pig. “I would have brought someone in there,” he says. “It’s an inherently dangerous sport, but you can build in a way that gives boarders a wider margin of error.”
In order to create an exciting and functional course, designers like Dawoud keep one goal in mind: creating the maximum amount of air time with the least amount of impact. Accomplishing this requires thinking intently about speed. Ideally, athletes should be accelerating as they hit progressively larger jumps and land on slopes steep enough to take the pain out of impact. If a course isn’t fast enough, athletes will hit hard on flats. If it’s too fast, they might miss landing areas altogether.
For Dawoud, building a regulation halfpipe is a science, and building a slopestyle course is an art. “There aren’t really any hard and fast rules for it,” he says.
But there are very real hazards, which is why the course is still being modified going into the first day of competition. And it isn’t hard to deduce that part of White’s decision to bow out of the event was due to it being scheduled at the beginning of the games, before the halfpipe contest, his bread and butter. As McCarthy points out, the world’s fastest sprinter “doesn’t run a relay just before the big race.” And relay’s don’t generally involve flying 90 feet in the air. Still, it’s a disappointment for the Olympic audience, White himself, and the Russian government.
“You spend $50 billion on the Olympics and Shaun White won’t compete in slopestyle,” says McCarthy. “What does that tell you?”