SOCHI, RUSSIA - When Shaun White pulled out of his first event at the Sochi Olympics, saying the slopestyle course was too risky for him, the verdict from spiteful voices on Twitter who have nothing good to say in 140 characters or less was instant and cruel.
Chicken, the meanest ones said of the two-time Olympic snowboarding champion, or unpublishable words to that effect.
Sochi could make a strong argument that for the next 17 days, it is hosting the largest gathering of brave souls on the planet. To accuse Winter Olympians — White included — of being short on courage is absurd.
Leaving aside curling — which as a sedate pastime shouldn’t be rubbing shoulders with other Olympic sports — the Winter Games are a strange world inhabited by people who shrug in the face of danger, poke peril in the eye, accept risk as their companion and consider all that to be normal.
It is a place where guys and gals who hurl themselves down icy chutes on sleds aren’t carted off to asylums but are awarded shiny medals.
There are athletes here who should be on sick beds not ski slopes, competing with aches, pains and ailments they embrace as part of their job and with knees, ligaments, shoulders and other body parts that have been surgically repaired, sometimes repeatedly.
Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris qualified Thursday for the slopestyle semifinals with a cracked rib. Twitter-wits dubbed him “McRib.” Briton Billy Morgan also qualified with two snapped ligaments in his right knee that he won’t get fixed until after the Olympics.
Austrian three-time Olympic ski jump champion Thomas Morgenstern is flying again less than one month after he rag-dolled in training, losing his balance in the air and hitting the deck, arms flailing. The video makes for sickening viewing. He suffered skull injuries and bruised a lung. Yet here he is Sochi, merrily tweeting from his account with its headline: “BORN to FLY! Failure will not overcome me, as long as my will to succeed is stronger!”
One thing to remember from the couch, especially for the judges and jurors with thumbs itching to type unkind words about White or any of his peers, is that television doesn’t do full justice to some winter sports. It flattens out bumps and makes slopes look less steep than they are. In reality, bobsleds and luges roar past in the blink of an eye. But the rawness of their speed gets lost in translation to TV.
Even on the box, the jumps on Sochi’s slopestyle course that White said thanks, but no thanks, to still look massive and daunting. But not as lethal as Sebastien Toutant described when he first rode them: “It is like jumping out of a building. I should put on my Canadian flying squirrel suit.”
Those who now question White’s courage should watch the documentary “Shaun White: Russia Calling” that aired before these Olympics. See how he whacked his head so hard that his helmet ripped off when trying to land a new halfpipe trick in 2012. It is a sobering moment, impossible to watch without thinking of the traumatic brain injury that Kevin Pearce suffered before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when he landed on his face performing a difficult stunt.
Also consider the damage the old-school “suck it up” philosophy — ignoring health risks, willfully or otherwise — has done in other sports, encouraging players in the NFL, for example, to grit their teeth and play through the fog of concussion, doing long-term injury to their brains.
And let’s not forget that four years ago, the games mourned Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger killed in a horrific crash on the superfast Vancouver Olympic sliding track.
So White is right not to make light of his safety.
He hurt his shoulder and ankle in the lead-up to these Olympics. In Sochi, he hurt his left wrist training on the slopestyle course. Ultimately, he concluded “the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me” and decided to preserve himself for a shot at a third straight title in the halfpipe competition next week.
Evaluating and then stepping back from risk doesn’t make White a coward. It does show he’s sane.