KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Minutes after the most crushing defeat of his entire career -- seemingly the only crushing defeat of his entire career -- Shaun White walked from one Winter Olympics rightsholder's camera after another, answering questions. These questions were mostly about White's defeat, why the Babe Ruth of snowboarding had finished fourth on the biggest stage there is, how this could have possibly happened. But that's not what the questions were really about. They were really about how everything eventually ends.
Shaun White gave them what Shaun White gives people, what spokespeople of his skill have been giving for years: reassurance. Everything is fine. These things happen. Get 'em next time. He gave interview after interview after interview, mere seconds after everything in his life, everything in his sport, changed. His face never wavered from the same expression. He gave that same non-threatening, empty smile that sells cereal and sunglasses and chewing gum, for 45 straight minutes. The other competitors, the ones who won, the ones who lost, they were allowed to get on with their lives, celebrating, weeping, resting, whatever they wanted to do after one of the biggest moments they'll ever experience. Not Shaun White. He had obligations. He can't just leave. This is his sport. His.
By the time he made it to the print reporters -- the ones who didn't pay billions to air these Games and thus had to wait their turn -- he was too gassed to continue. He didn't show it, of course. He kept that smile, apologized like a public figure in his position is supposed to and said, "Sorry, guys, gotta go to doping [testing]." One thwarted reporter cracked, "Since when do they drug test fourth place finishers?" When they're Shaun White and they just need a goddamned minute, that's when. Not that White heard him. He was whisked away, gone.
* * *
"I think it's great the American public and the world now knows that there are other snowboarders besides Shaun White," said American Danny Davis, who finished 10th, and everybody knew what he meant. It seems no one here likes Shaun White, sometimes. Reporters, urged on by editors to document his every move, grimace when they hear his name. Hardcore snowboarding fans feel he has betrayed their sports' collegial ethos in the name of relentless corporate sponsorship. Most of all, it's his fellow racers. There was near universal animus toward him when he dropped out of the slopestyle event this weekend and later when he wouldn't support other riders, including Davis, who wanted tonight's halfpipe event postponed because of track conditions. White's status atop the sport would have been powerful enough to push organizers to fix the course, but that status, and the corporate obligations that come with it, made him the least likely person to say anything. It's not just about him getting his hair cut. (Davis snickered to another reporter after White's run: "Fourth [place] was a gift, man.")
At some point, Shaun White went from the spokesperson for his sport to overshadowing it as "The Flying Tomato." He reached the level where you can't go to the supermarket without seeing his face, even on products that seem to have nothing to do with his chosen area of expertise. He dates celebrities; he models clothes; he has toys made of himself; your five-year-old knows his name. He's the biggest star of these Olympics, and it's not particularly close.
But snowboarding, among those within the sport, isn't supposed to be about that. This is a sports in which the participants actively cheer for each other and claim not to care who wins their competitions as long as everyone has a good time, as evidence by Sage Kotsenburg's utterly guileless demeanor after he won gold in slopestyle on Saturday. ("It's not like we're bummed out when someone else does well," he beamed.) White is an aloof, distant champion. And nothing about snowboarding is supposed to be aloof. People weren't watching White run through the rightsholder line to credit him for his stiff upper lip. They were waiting to see if he'd crack.
This is entirely unfair, of course. White has dominated his sport so thoroughly that this backlash was inevitable. The fact remains, even after tonight, Shaun White might be as good at riding a snowboard as anyone is good at anything in the whole world. (Switzerland's Iouri Podladtchikov's gold medal wouldn't have meant as much had White somehow not entered this event. He had to beat Shaun.) He has been so much better than his competition for so long, before, during and after the explosion of his sport that he helped set into motion. The rest of us were tethered to the dreary real world. He had made it all look safe and easy. That's how people become icons. And that how people lose touch with the rest of us.
Tonight, though, the rest of the sport, with more people watching than ever before, rose up and met him. It wasn't just Podladtchikov; 15-year-old Ayumu Hirano, who won silver, might have been just as impressive, and while Podladtchikov's performance felt like a breakthrough, Hirano's felt like the promise of something entirely new. (Hirano is the only rider, Podladtchikov included, who looks like he could someday approach White's heights.) They were the best they had ever been.
And White, stunningly, couldn't match them. He fell twice on his first run, but even after Podladtchikov's and Hirano's revolutionary performances, you still felt that somehow White was gonna pull it out of the fire in his last run. He never quite got going, though, with a lower lift on his first jump than usual and some uncharacteristic shakiness on his landings. (White, who eventually spoke at a press conference, said, "Tonight was just one of those nights. I feel like I left some tricks in my pocket.") When White is White, like during his first qualifying run, it feels like he has access to magic that no one else does -- it honestly looks like he has the ability to fly. He just couldn't conjure it when he needed it at the end; he even said he'd planned on doing something like the triple cork tonight, "something that's never been done before."
So what was it? Was it because he's getting older? (He's 12 years older than Hirano.) Was it because he's distracted by his other obligations? (He said the first thing he would do post-Olympics was go on tour with his band.) Has the sport finally caught up with him? Did he really just have a bad day?
It doesn't really matter now, and one wonders if White even knows himself. "I don't think tonight makes or breaks my career," he said. "I've done so much. This is just one part of who I am, a big part, but I want to be more than just that."
He may have his chance. White is no longer invincible, and, despite Podladtchikov's victory and the ascendance of the other riders in the sport, that will be all anyone remembers from tonight. This is how it starts. It happens to all of us. One day Michael Jordan couldn't dunk; one day Willie Mays couldn't run fast; one day Joe Montana's passes wobbled and fell. Shaun White is still in your supermarket, and he is still the face of his sport. But not for much longer. Not for forever.
* * *