Krasnaya Polyana, Russia • Shaun White jammed his wrist on one jump and watched the world’s best snowboarders join him in tumbling down the supersized, super-scary Olympic slopestyle course.
Quickly, his choice became clear: Time to step away from the danger, and give himself a better chance in the event he knows he can win.
The world’s most famous snowboarder pulled out of the new Olympic event Wednesday, saying that after much deliberation, he has decided to bypass a chance at winning two gold medals at these games and instead concentrate on the halfpipe, where he’ll have a chance to win his third straight title next week.
“With the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on,” White said in a statement.
The world’s most decorated rider in a sport known for its risk-takers, White’s decision was a stunner that dealt yet another blow to the still-to-start Sochi Games. They have been wracked by security threats and political dust-ups, along with the loss of at least one other headliner, injured American skier Lindsey Vonn.
White isn’t leaving, but his departure from an event that was essentially introduced at the Olympics this year to take advantage of his star power certainly can’t make the folks at the IOC or NBC too happy.
“He’s a notable person and he probably would have brought more viewers to slopestyle,” said Nick Goepper, an American who competes in the skiing version of the event.
IOC spokesman Mark Adams downplayed the idea that the course is too dangerous.
“I don’t think that’s an issue,” he said. “A lot of the athletes have said they’re very happy, they like the venue.”
Slopestyle qualifying starts Thursday, the day before the opening ceremony.
Snowboarding’s newest and most-hyped Olympic event is a judged sport — a speed-packed trip down the mountain, filled with rails, bumps and, most notably, steeply angled jumps that allow riders to flip two, sometimes three times, before landing. White hurt his wrist on one of the takeoff ramps, which were built “kind of obnoxiously tall,” according to one top rider, Canadian Mark McMorris.
White, who had already hurt his shoulder and ankle in the lead-up to the Olympics, deemed his latest injury — the jammed wrist — as nothing serious and said reports about it were overblown. But he said there remained serious issues with the slopestyle course.
“There are definitely concerns about the course,” he said. “It’s been interesting to see how it’s developed and changed over the past couple days. The big question is if it will continue to change. Because every day, they have riders meetings and they give feedback. Sometimes there’s changes, sometimes there’s not.”
Reaction to White’s decision came from several corners, not all of it positive.
“Mr. White... It’s easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win,” said Canadian rider Sebastian Toutant in a tweet that was later deleted.
Maybe so, but White certainly wasn’t alone in questioning the course.
Australian Torah Bright, the defending women’s halfpipe champion who is trying to compete in three events this year — halfpipe, slopestyle and a racer’s version called snowboardcross — also described an overly treacherous few days of training.
“We’re here as the world’s best snowboarders,” she told The Associated Press. “Too bad we don’t have a world-class course. The craftsmanship doesn’t match the world-class athletes that are here.”
Out of slopestyle, White will now focus solely on next Tuesday’s contest in the halfpipe, which is essentially a hollowed-out ice shell with 22-foot (7-meter) sidewalls. There is danger there, but unlike slopestyle, it’s based mostly on the types of head-over-heels tricks the riders try and not the setup of the pipe.
In a news conference about an hour before he gave first word of his decision to the “Today” show, White was asked whether halfpipe was more important to him.
“For me, I definitely feel the halfpipe carries a bit more weight, a bit more pressure. I guess that’s fair enough to say,” he said.
He is favored to become the first male American to win three straight golds in the Winter Games.
His prospects for slopestyle, on the other hand, were uncertain. He’s the five-time Winter X Games champion, though he more or less gave up the event about five years ago to focus solely on the halfpipe. He hurt his ankle on the halfpipe in the season’s first Olympic qualifier, then bashed his shoulder during a nasty fall in slopestyle about a month later.
He pulled out of events, changed his mind a few times about the X Games — considered the biggest snowboarding event outside of the Olympics — before skipping that, as well. In all, it has been a hectic lead-up period as he tried to deal with both events, and it didn’t stop once he reached Russia. The slopestyle final is set for Saturday, which would cost him the first day of practice on the halfpipe.
“It’s tough juggling both events,” White said. “Definitely not easy. It’s something that’s been talked about quite a bit. Losing a day of practice is a serious thing, especially with a new course and the challenges I’d face in slopestyle.”
He said watching the injuries pile up on the course didn’t build much confidence.
Another top rider, Torstein Horgmo of Norway, was forced out after breaking his collarbone during practice Monday. On Tuesday, Finnish rider Marika Enne was carted off the course with a concussion.
There were dozens of other less-serious flips and spills.
Many riders said the dangers of the course were being overblown — “There’s no way this course is too dangerous,” American Sage Kotsenburg insisted.
But White and Bright are not alone in criticizing the setup.
“It’s a little intense, a little challenging,” said American rider Jamie Anderson, a gold-medal favorite on the women’s side. “The jumps are still a little weird. I’m having a questionable time getting used to them.”
While the other riders might breathe a little easier knowing one of their main competitors is out of the way, White understands his place in the sport and the gravity of his decision.
“Not one I take lightly,” he said. “I know how much effort everyone has put into holding the slopestyle event for the first time in Olympic history — a history I had planned on being part of.”
Billie Jean King won’t attend Sochi opening
Billie Jean King will not attend Friday’s opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics in Russia because her mother is ill.
King, who was selected to help lead the U.S. delegation to the Games, has been outspoken in her opposition to Russia’s anti-gay law. She also planned to attend ice hockey and figure skating events and meet U.S. athletes during her three-day visit to the games.
The White House announced Wednesday that former U.S. hockey player Caitlin Cahow, originally scheduled for the closing ceremony, will take King’s place.
King told The Associated Press that because of her mother’s “failing health, I will not be able to join the U.S. Presidential delegation at this week’s opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics.”
Betty Moffitt, her 91-year-old mother, lives in Arizona and has been ill for some time. King will be joined by her brother Randy Moffitt, a former pitcher for the San Francisco Giants.
“It is important for me to be with my mother and my brother at this difficult time. I want to thank President Obama for including me in this historic mission and I look forward to supporting our athletes as they compete in Sochi.”
The openly gay former tennis star has said she would like sexual orientation added to the list of protections in the charter of the International Olympic Committee. King was chosen in December for the U.S. delegation, along with openly gay former Olympic figure skater Brian Boitano and Cahow.
In June, Russia passed a law banning gay “propaganda” to minors. In an interview with the AP last month, King said: “It should be a non-issue. It’s just like people of color in our country and other places, it has to be a non-issue.”
President Barack Obama has been publicly critical of the Russian anti-gay law and President Vladimir Putin’s “cold-war” mentality on other issues. For the first time since 2000, the U.S. delegation to the Olympics will not include a president, former president, vice president or first lady.
The 70-year-old King, a social justice trailblazer who won 39 Grand Slam titles in her career, was tapped to enter the fray involving the delicate balance of Olympic sports and politics.
Other members of the U.S. delegation for the opening ceremony include former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and presidential adviser Rob Nabors.
The White House statement said “The President extends his thoughts and prayers to Ms. King and her family in this difficult time.”
U.S. picks Todd Lodwick as flagbearer
The United States has chosen six-time Olympian Todd Lodwick to be the team’s flagbearer at Friday’s opening ceremony for the Sochi Games.
Team USA announced the choice on Wednesday. Lodwick is competing in the Nordic combined in Sochi. He is the first American to compete in six Winter Games. Lodwick was part of the team that won silver in Vancouver in 2010.
The 36-year-old Lodwick’s longevity made him the choice despite competing in a relatively low-profile event. The Nordic combined features athletes who compete in both the ski jump and cross-country skiing.
Lodwick was chosen over more famous American athletes, including snowboarder Shaun White and men’s hockey captain Zach Parise.
Jamaican bobsledders without equipment in Russia
Jamaica’s beloved bobsled team had to raise money just to get to Russia.
Now they’ve arrived at the Sochi Games — but without their equipment.
The carefree Jamaicans were unable to make their first practice runs Wednesday because their luggage, with the runners for their two-man sled as well as all their sliding gear, was missing.
“The sled is here,” driver Winston Watts said. “But the blades that we put our heart out to get, the airline maybe left them back in New York. None of us have clothing.”
Watts said he and brakeman Marvin Dixon missed their connecting flight in Moscow after being delayed by bad weather in New York. While other competitors got in unofficial training runs on the Sanki Sliding Center track, Watts was on the phone trying to find out what to do next.
If the runners, helmets and sliding suits don’t arrive by Thursday, Watts said the team will borrow from other teams so it can practice.
“I do have a backup plan,” Watts said, trying to make light of a “frustrating” situation. “We do have a lot of guys here that want to help us, so I’m excited to see what’s going to be the outcome tomorrow.”
This isn’t the first hurdle for Jamaica in returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2002. After qualifying for Sochi, the team didn’t have enough money to fund the trip and needed $80,000. With help from donations from around the world, they raised $120,000 in two days.
The 46-year-old Watts, who came out of retirement earlier this season, said he had no choice but to ask for financial support.
“I didn’t have any more money to spend so I decided I would turn to my fans and friends and that’s why we put out that bulletin so we could achieve some funding,” he said.
Until his luggage is found and delivered, Watts doesn’t have any clothes other than the track suit and yellow baseball cap he wore to the track.
Still, he managed to keep smiling, refusing to let the inconvenience ruin his mood.
“There’s no such word to explain how I felt being here,” he said. “The atmosphere, the fans, the friends. It’s pretty exciting. We are the most lovingest people, so every moment is always positive. We always keep smiling. That is our motto.”
Standing between U.S. Olympians and their yogurt: Russia
The relationship between the U.S. and Russia is deeply strained, with recent disagreements over weighty matters like the Syrian conflict, arms control, human rights and the granting of asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has leaked troves of documents detailing the government’s eavesdropping programs.
Now the two countries are skirmishing over an unanticipated, but no less momentous subject, at least in certain parts of the U.S.: the delivery of Greek yogurt to the American athletes competing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The Russian government is apparently blocking a shipment of 5,000 containers of Chobani yogurt - now sitting in limbo in cold storage near Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey - that had been bound for the U.S. Olympic team.
The blockade has prompted protests from yogurt-promoting politicians in New York and in Washington, who express outrage that U.S. athletes could be deprived of a protein-rich food that had been part of their training regimen.
The Russian government says the American-made yogurt cannot enter Russia because the Americans have not submitted the proper paperwork. The U.S. says the certification required by the Russians would be impossible to attain.
The yogurt makers are growing exasperated.
“I’d like to think that yogurt could have diplomatic immunity,” said Peter McGuinness, the chief marketing and brand officer for Chobani.
After beginning as a breakfast-table squabble, the dairy drama is quickly escalating.
Yogurt production is a booming business in upstate New York, a place that does not have many booming businesses. Naturally, the industry has become a favorite for many of the state’s leading elected officials.
No resolution is in sight. Whether U.S. athletes will have access to any other brands of yogurt could not be determined on Wednesday. Yevgeniy Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said U.S. officials had been told about the necessary paperwork, but had not complied.
Gary D. Finch, a Republican state assemblyman who represents the area including the Chobani plant, said if Russia wants to have a Cold War over yogurt, so be it.
“Whatever they choose to bring to the table to have some conflict over, we, of course, will win,” he said. “And we will have our yogurt at the end of the day.”