KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Thursday's Olympic debut of men's snowboard slopestyle was a bumpy one. It began with more talk about who wasn't competing than the 29 riders who were, and it ended with the gold-medal favorite staring, shell-shocked, into a throng of reporters as he tried to explain why the judges believed he had come up short.
In the media mixed zone before the event, the buzz was all about Shaun White, who announced on Wednesday that he was withdrawing from slopestyle competition to focus on halfpipe. But while he wasn't at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in body, he certainly was in spirited questions about how his competitors felt about their White-less Olympic debut.
"I'm bummed he pulled out," said Canadian rider Max Parrot, who qualified straight into Saturday's final with the highest score of the day, a 97.5. (His first-run score of 91.75 would have been good enough to send him to finals as well, in fourth place.) "I haven't had a chance in the last year to compete against him. I showed up with two golds at X Games and would have loved to compete against him here."
Parrot's teammate, Sebastian Toutant, who also qualified straight to finals, was critical of White's decision a day ago on Twitter, but said his since-deleted post was misinterpreted by his followers. "I posted what I had to say and deleted it," he says. "People took it the wrong way. I wasn't hating on Shaun. Everybody wants to compete with him and prove you can do better than him. He's dominated halfpipe for a long time, but here, he's the underdog. So I'm sad he chose to pull out."
Underdog, maybe. But White has the tricks. And at the final Grand Prix qualifier in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., he proved he can land a slopestyle run when he needs to, which is why his competitors were itching to compete against him in Sochi. If they win, they want to do so against the best field, not the best field minus one.
"He's going for three golds in a row, and it's a lot of stress," says U.S. rider Sage Kotsenburg, who will compete in Saturday's semifinal along with teammates Chas Guldemond and Ryan Stassel. "He knew the stress he was getting into, but I'd rather see him win gold over there [in halfpipe] than do mediocre in both events."
And while White has the most mainstream draw of any athlete in the event, slopestyle has existed without him for much of the past five years; that's the last time he won an X Games slopestyle contest and certainly the last time he was the only rider to beat. He didn't compete at X Games this year, and the contest was one of the best and most progressive in history.
White's presence in any field elevates the level of competition. But make no mistake: The Olympic slopestyle field is no lesser because of White's subtraction. Triples, for better or worse, are now the norm, and it was Parrot who recently became the first rider to land two of them back-to-back to win slopestyle at the 2014 X Games. With the level of riding here in Sochi, it might take the same combo to win Saturday.
"Two triples? We'll see," says Parrot, who has ridden in the shadow of his Canadian teammates, Mark McMorris and Toutant, for the past few years. But in the past month, he's ditched their shadows for the spotlight. "We saw Max do two triples at X, and we know the last jump here is trip-able," Toutant says. "On the other two, you'll just have to spin faster. We'll see on Saturday. But no one will go for a safe run in finals."
Nor did they on Thursday. With the everyone-moves-on format used in this first round of competition (see below for an explanation of the competition format), the men (and women) used their second runs as though they were the second run of finals -- some, like McMorris, because they needed to do so.
After falling on his first of two runs, McMorris stood at the top of the course contemplating what it would take to break into the top four and move directly into the finals. He knew that doing so would mean taking Saturday morning's semis off, resting and not having to endure two extra runs on the same day as finals with a broken rib, an injury he sustained at X Games two weeks ago. He needed higher than a 91.25 to bump Gjermund Braaten of Norway into fifth, and believed he had the run to do so. After a solid rail section, a cab double cork 900 and frontside double cork 1080, McMorris landed a backside triple cork 1440 and celebrated what he thought was a top-four run.
"I thought for sure I was going to be in," McMorris said after his seventh-place score of 89.25 was announced. "To land a really good run I was proud of, with one of the only legit triple corks of the day, and not even come close, it's pretty ridiculous. I didn't think my run was less technical, and it sure as heck wasn't sketchy. It felt solid and clean. It's a shock to the heart. Right now, I'm hurting mentally more than anything."
Back in the States, snowboard fans stayed up late to watch the event live and didn't hide their feelings about McMorris' score on social media. Between the inconsistent judging (at times, judges rewarded flat spins over corked spins; at others, they appeared to focus solely on the jump section and sometimes seemed to reverse course altogether) and a webcast that was difficult to follow, fans at home likely were left disappointed.
But, as McMorris said before heading back to the athletes village to regroup: "The positive is that I have another shot on Saturday. Qualifiers is behind us now, and I need to look positively to the future."
A look at the competition format
Qualifiers (Thursday): Two qualification heats; the top four qualify directly to the final. The remaining riders qualify to the semifinal.
Riders who qualified directly to finals:
1. Staale Sandbech, Norway
2. Peetu Piiroinen, Finland
3. Sebastien Toutant, Canada
4. Jamie Nicholls, Great Britain
1. Max Parrot, Canada
2. Roope Tonteri, Finland
3. Sven Thorgren, Sweden
4. Gjermund Braaten, Norway
Semifinals (Saturday): The top four qualify to finals.
Final (Saturday): 12 riders, best of two runs.