KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA – The long hair is gone and so, too, is his Flying Tomato nickname.
Shaun White looks and sounds like a different guy these days. He has remade his image, from a free-spirited snowboarding hipster with crazy red hair to clean-cut corporate spokesman who looks comfortable in a suit and tie.
The snowboarding acrobat has turned his Olympic and X Games dominance into celebrity status that makes him one of the most recognizable American athletes in the Sochi Games.
“I may have lost a little bit of hair, but I’m still the same guy,” White said. “I definitely take things a bit more seriously nowadays just because I feel like I’m getting older. That just happens when you get older. You think more. When you’re younger you don’t really think about that. For me, cutting my hair was not a decision to become more serious and more grown up. I still approach competitions the same way.”
In other words, he’s determined to protect his turf in the snowboarding halfpipe competition. White will attempt to three-peat as gold medalist in the halfpipe Tuesday. He won that event in Torino in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010.
White withdrew from the inaugural slopestyle competition in these Olympics because of a wrist injury. That decision drew some potshots from rivals, who, instead, should be grateful for White’s role in helping another snowboarding event become an Olympic sport.
The rise in popularity of action sports — with White as a pioneer — has reinvigorated the Olympics by making it more attractive to a younger generation. As extreme sports have evolved into more mainstream acceptance, the International Olympic Committee, to its credit, embraced the notion that nontraditional sports have a place on its menu.
White described snowboarding as “ever-changing” and that applies to the Olympics as well. Every sport or professional league must consider ways to remain fresh and relevant. Change can be good, sometimes necessary, even if us fuddy-duddies don’t necessarily relate to something that’s appealing to a younger audience.
The NFL eventually will eliminate extra-point attempts and maybe even kickoffs. Basketball adopted the three-point shot once upon a time. Nothing says the Olympics shouldn’t expand its horizons, too.
Ultimately, it comes down to the eyeball test. As in, are people watching? The Olympics (and NBC because it writes big checks for TV rights) needs to attract a wide audience with its lineup of events, and what better way to bring in young viewers than add sports popular with that demographic.
“I’m honored that our sport is helping bring new viewership to the Olympics and a fresh take on the Olympics,” White said. “I think it’s cool. I’ve been to two Olympics before, and I think what it did for the sport was great. It brought eyeballs to the disciplines and the athletics of the sport. It no longer was looked at as sort of a daredevil thing. Now I feel like it brings some legitimacy to both sides. Not only does the Olympics need snowboarding, but I think snowboarding benefited greatly from the Olympics.”
Bob Costas, the host of NBC’s Olympic coverage, irked the snowboarding community recently by taking a shot at slopestyle during an appearance on the “Today” show.
“I think the president of the IOC should be Johnny Knoxville because basically this stuff is just ‘Jackass’ stuff that they invented and called Olympic sports,” Costas said.
Costas laughed as he made that remark, but his dis was viewed as a get-off-my-lawn finger wave. To be fair, I can’t fault Costas entirely because I had a similar reaction after learning that trampoline is an Olympic sport in the Summer Games. Yes, trampoline.
My only ties to trampoline came as a kid when I soared through the air — and sometimes landed on my head — after my older brother double-bounced me. And yet I watched the trampoline competition at the London Games on television and found it strangely entertaining.
White’s bid for another gold medal in the halfpipe Tuesday likely will produce healthy TV ratings. Apparently, he might perform a trick called a double cork 1440.
Maybe he’s not the Flying Tomato anymore, but his stunts never grow stale. He still looks right at home on the Olympic stage. So does his sport.