BONGPYEONG, South Korea – What he did, by the standards of his sport, was perfect: 28 seconds of snowboarding, five jumps, five smooth landings, 15 1/2 revolutions of airborne twists, and finally, a swerving stop at the bottom of the halfpipe, where Shaun White saw his score. A 100. The maximum possible. Perfection.
“Are you kidding me?” somebody in the crowd yelled, and White roared and threw his hands in the air.
The score – awarded last month at the U.S. Grand Prix of Snowmass in Colorado – made for a perfect redemption narrative. White is by far the sport’s biggest star. He is a 31-year-old competing with teenagers. He’d fallen on two previous runs. The sun was setting. He was the last rider of the day. And then, needing a clutch moment, he pulled off the very trick – a double cork 1440 – that the previous October had put him in intensive care.
“I mean, he just knocked it out of the park,” White’s coach, J.J. Thomas, said Saturday, looking back on White’s run from a month earlier. “Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded.”
But in snowboarding, perfection is as controversial as it is rare. That moment, which vaulted White into the Winter Olympics, has followed him – and the sport – to Pyeongchang, where several other snowboarders have taken issue with the sport’s judging, saying that White is shown favoritism, and that nobody’s run should be deemed perfect. In other words, they said, the six judges who graded White’s run in Colorado weren’t doing the right thing. And several of them are here to judge the event again.
“I have openly said (to the judges), this is not what you do,” awarding 100s, said Scotty James, an Australian who is one of White’s main rivals. “Shaun, if he looked at that run, he would tell you that wasn’t a perfect 100.”
Debate about judging is all but compulsory in a subjective sport. But the debate in snowboarding has a distinct set of layers, partly because the riders’ tricks are progressing so quickly – what is perfect, then? – and partly because White, in fame and wealth, so towers above his competitors. In men’s snowboarding, judges only twice have awarded perfect 100s. White earned both.
“When we saw the 100, me and Shaun were like, oh great,” Thomas said. “We were like, oh here we go, people are going to be hounding us, dude. Saying, ‘no such thing as 100.’ ”
That’s exactly what happened.
Over the past few days, British snowboarder Aimee Fuller was quoted in several British papers saying White gets points just for being White. “Every (other) snowboarder starts from the bottom and they earn their points,” she said. “Shaun starts at the top and they deduct his points, so unless he does anything particularly wrong, he’s staying at the top.”
Then there’s James, 23, the Australian flag bearer and the reigning halfpipe world champion. It was James who’d been in first place in Colorado before White’s jump. It was James who’d pulled off what many consider the sport’s toughest and most technical trick – a backside double cork 1260.
“I feel like there have been times I was a bit shafted,” James said at a news conference this week in Pyeongchang. “In Colorado, I had question marks and had some words with the judges. Not because of getting second place, I am not a sore loser. I was just curious as to the 100.”
Snowboarding judges tend to adjust their scoring from event to event, like teachers grading their classroom on a curve. A 90 run one day might be an 85 the next day, if the entire field is more impressive. But 100s are almost always off the table. Judges are willing to issue them, in theory, only to the last rider of an event; giving them out earlier would all but declare the winner before the event had ended.
“We’re ranking the riders and putting a number to it,” Tom Zikas, a California-based X Games judge, said in a phone interview. He said, in his eyes, that White last month fell short of a 100: “I didn’t think the run was that progressive, given where the sport is now. It definitely has to be something that is knocked out of the park.”
The halfpipe competition – snowboard’s signature event – is by most accounts loaded with the most talent it’s ever had, even though one medal contender, Iouri Podladtchikov, of Switzerland, announced this week he was withdrawing from the Olympics because of a head injury. Americans Chloe Kim and Kelly Clark are favorites in the women’s event, which begins Sunday. Among the men, who begin qualification on Tuesday (8 p.m. PT Monday), White is competing with James and Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who several weeks ago had a run that several here said was the best the sport has ever seen.
Hirano landed back-to-back 1440s, for the first time in history. X Games broadcasters were all but screaming as Hirano finished his run.
The judges scored him a 99.0.
“That,” snowboarder Rakai Tait of New Zealand said, “was as close to perfect as you can get.”
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