Posted: Monday February 13, 2006 3:24AM; Updated: Monday February 13, 2006 5:21PM
Shaun White rebounded from a miscue on his first run to win gold in the halfpipe.
TURIN, Italy -- Remember how disappointed you were when you walked out of the theater after watching Episode I: The Phantom Menace? Well, I don't either because I never bothered to see the movie. But if I had, I would think it's a lot like watching the men's halfpipe on Sunday afternoon -- a big letdown.
The problem isn't the snowboarders. Gold medalist Shaun White delivered with a thrilling aerial show and back-to-back 1080s. Danny Kass turned in a clutch performance with high-soaring, technical tricks to take his second straight Olympic silver medal. And Andy Finch, who finished last in the finals, cracked his board during a gutsy run in which he rode with a sprained left wrist.
What's wrong with the Olympics' premier snowboarding discipline is that its do-over policy lacks suspense and drama. Riders go down the pipe twice and pick their best score. And if you count the preliminary round, you can have up to four chances to get it right.
Four chances? In freestyle moguls, you get one shot. On Saturday evening, I went to women's freestyle moguls, an event in which 30 skiers bumped and jumped their way down a course to make the top 20 spots in the finals. It was a tense, excitable atmosphere -- thousands of hours of training and preparation could be over in just 30 seconds. And when that happens, it hurts, as 2005 world champion Hannah Kearney found after missing an aerial landing. Biting her lower lip, Kearney, 19, tried to fight back tears after her run and finally had to be whisked away by a press rep before she let it all go and sobbed uncontrollably. And there were a half-dozen skiers just like her doing the same.
Unfortunately, you're never all in at the halfpipe if you bomb out after your first run. In the prelims, White, 19, went down the chute the first time, skidding on a backside 900. The error bumped him out of the top six that automatically moved into the finals. The remaining 38 riders got a second chance for the last six spots. "After that fall, it hit me that I had to step it up and ride well," White said.
Had there been no shot for redemption, the gold medal favorite would have had to wait another four years. Instead, White switched to a more conservative routine for his second try to safely advance to the finals. In that round, he aggressively threw two back-to-back 1080s and ended with a pair of 900s and was awarded the day's highest score of 46.8. It was enough to keep him in the top spot, ahead of Kass and Finland's Markku Koski, who finished third. The problem was, the No. 8-seeded White had to wait almost an hour for 17 more runs to be completed before he could take his obligatory victory lap.
No snowboarder deserved to win the gold more than White, whose seventh straight victory came after winning all five Grand Prixs and the X Games. But a big part of what makes the Olympics so compelling is the possibility that any of the 44 competitors from 17 countries has a shot to test himself under the most nerve-racking conditions, and that should mean just one chance. Pro snowboarders often project an image that they don't take themselves too seriously -- hanging out with their friends and chilling in their baggy snowboard pants before they compete -- but this is the Olympics. If the sport really wants to prove how hardcore it is at the Games, you have to go all in.