KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — As Olympic competition kicked off on Thursday a day before opening ceremonies, 29 slopestyle snowboarders competed for eight guaranteed spots in the final.
But it was the one who was missing that still garnered attention. Shaun White pulled out of the event late Wednesday, less than 24 hours before a qualification round at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. Easily the biggest star of the Games, White continued to draw attention to the new event.
From the guys who sought to compete against him, the reactions varied. With White seeking to defend his past two gold medals in the halfpipe, many riders understood the risk of injury.
"I feel like he's going to go huge in pipe now, it's going to be insane," said American Sage Kotsenburg. "He has so much more on his plate, I don't know, I wasn't really that shocked at all. The course is pretty challenging, and when you've got three medals at risk over at pipe, I'd probably do the same thing."
Canadians Maxence Parrot and Sebastien Toutant each had tweeted about White's decision on Wednesday, but both backed it up by getting into the final. Parrot had said that White was scared, while Toutant said it was easy to make excuses as they both suggested White could not win.
They deleted the tweets but said their meaning was misunderstood. They fear that for whichever rider ultimately wins the event, it will come with a cloud of doubt because he didn't beat White.
"I'm not even hating on Shaun at all. What I was saying is it's a bummer cause these are riders that everybody talks about him to be the best and everybody wants to have a chance to compete vs. him and prove that you could do better," Toutant said. "He's an amazing rider in the pipe. He proved it so many times, but now he's kind of an underdog in the slope. I'm kind of sad he decided to pull off, and that's all I have to say."
"People are going to say Shaun White could have beat you," Parrot said. "I will be really mad about that. I know that with the runs I do, I don't think Shaun White would do better in this and that's why I would really like to compete against him."
That worry that a win in a contest without White would come with an asterisk is at least in part due to a general lack of knowledge of White's standing in slopestyle.
For a mainstream audience that tunes in every four years to see him dominate in the Olympics, gold is expected regardless. But for those in the sport who have seen slopestyle progress while White stepped away for years to focus on halfpipe, that expectation is not the same.
While no one would underestimate one of the best competitive snowboarders the sport has ever seen, gold or even a medal was not presumed. The riders that have been winning events the past two years have mastered several variations of a triple cork. Parrot became the first to land two in a run to win gold at the X Games and is among a small number of riders who think two might be possible here.
While White has worked on them, he has not landed one in a competition.
Asked if it was an expectation that White would win the event, Norwegian Staale Sandbech said, "No, he's really good in the pipe. He's really good in the slope, but he's not there. He's not the top rider in slope yet."
With none of the three remaining Americans clinching a spot in the final, White's absence was more acute. He was not replaced in the event.
"There was a lot of guys that I trained really hard with sitting in that fifth spot," said Chas Guldemond, who narrowly missed a spot in the finals by finishing fifth in his heat by .75 points.
"It's pretty unfortunate that they missed their opportunity to come to the Games, so that was a pretty big blow," he said. "I'm surprised that he pulled out so late. I knew it was coming sometime this year."
Guldemond declined to elaborate on what he meant by that, but other riders pointed to White's decision to pull out of a couple events this season. Despite qualifying first, White pulled out of the slopestyle final in the first U.S. team qualifier after spraining his ankle in the halfpipe.
White went back and forth on competing in the X Games, committing to the event before pulling out of it days before it was set to start.
"It has been a couple contests in a row that he's pulling out at the last minute," Parrot said. "I would just really like to compete against him. I do understand he's pulling out to go for three golds in a row in pipe, and maybe I would do the same if I was him. I don't know. But I'm just mad for the fact that I can't compete against him at the Olympics."