In defense of Shaun White
Why I think the multi-gold medalist doesn't deserve the criticism
In 2006, “Il Pomodoro Volante” — known to us non-Italians as Shaun White — took the world by storm. Iconic red hair flying, White dominated the competition at the Turin Winter Olympics and took home his first gold medal. His celebrity and the hype surrounding him grew, and in 2010 he responded with a repeat performance. White was introduced to the public as a kid with long hair and immense talent. Now, some years later, he is an adult. The hair is gone, the talent remains and one new ingredient has been added: a legion of snowboarding frenemies.
The public loves Shaun White, but the snowboarding community does not. Especially after his withdrawal from the new slopestyle competition in the ongoing Sochi Games, White has drawn plenty criticism from his peers. For one thing, he’s too corporate. He got his first sponsorship at the ripe age of six. Then, of course, there’s his competitive mentality: White cares about winning too much. Red Bull built him a personal halfpipe to train on, and it’s said White wouldn’t share with his teammates. Above all, critics say, Shaun White doesn’t embrace snowboarding culture.
Here’s why all of that is garbage.
First, there’s the inevitable part of life so many try to deny: aging. Shaun White was 19 when he won the public’s affection in Turin. He’s 27 now. Call it crazy, but a man who is nearly 30 years old maybe should behave a little bit differently than a teenager.
White has chopped off his hair and become the successful businessman behind Shaun White Enterprises. He’s still full of personality, to be sure, and he does have one drunken incident in 2012 to live down, but he’s gained a new maturity which will benefit him when he’s nearing 40 instead of 30 and his days of hurtling his body through the air are limited.
Speaking of Shaun White Enterprises, let’s talk about “corporate” Shaun White. The guy may be an incredibly talented snowboarder, but White has proven he has other interests and goals he’s not afraid to pursue. A mixture of hard work, smart business decisions and really great name recognition have allowed him to create a clothing line, release a video game and even start a band.
Other snowboarders can say what they will, but White is not some villainous Wall Street CEO. Rather, he has a good eye for opportunity and the audacity to actually seize it. Then, once he’s made his millions, he turns around and donates to St. Jude’s. Not exactly the money-clutching, monocle-wearing man behind the desk he could be, is he?
Perhaps the weirdest complaint about White is that he, a snowboarder who has worked hard to reach the highest level of competition, actually has the nerve to care about succeeding. A professional athlete who wants to win? Say what? Other snowboarders, they say, compete for the love of the sport itself, but it’s clear to me White does love what he does — and I don’t see anything wrong with loving what you do, but also enjoying the fact that you’re the best at it.
While we’re at it, the very same success White has enjoyed throughout his career is largely what has drawn so many spectators, supporters and potential athletes to the sport. If the other guys are mad White won’t share his halfpipe, they can either keep crying about it to the media or go win enough to get one of their own.
All of these points add up to one larger argument: Shaun White doesn’t comply with snowboarder culture. Last I checked, though, the judging criteria for the halfpipe and slopestyle competition has something to do with landing clean, difficult jumps — not with having shaggy hair and considering all the other riders your family.
So Sage Kotsenberg doesn’t go to the gym and throws out weird words like “spoice.” Good for him. Kotsenberg is another exceptionally talented athlete with a bright future, and proof there should be no right or wrong personality in sports. It may be true that certain sports attract certain types of people, but one person choosing to act differently is not cause to throw him under the bus — especially because it only happens when that one person starts beating everyone else.
Shaun White didn’t medal in Sochi. His gold medal streak ended, and in four years we may or may not see him back at it in Pyeongchang. Until then, he has plenty going for him: a band, a business, a couple of gold medals to go with his X-Games hardware and yes, the sincere joy of snowboarding itself. Critics can attack him because he’s too good or too different, but it seems a safe bet that Shaun White is going to keep forging his own path — and he’s going to be damn good at it.