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The skies had cleared over the most star-crossed venue at these Olympics, a vast rain magnet called Cypress Mountain. But the deluge was about to begin. Again. Twenty minutes before the start of the halfpipe competition in which U.S. men and women would win four of a possible six medals (for the third straight Olympics), the crowd of 2,000-plus was treated to a blast from the past. There on the jumbo screen was Ross (the Boss) Powers, soaring over the pipe at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
An exciting rider known for his massive straight airs, Powers can't be faulted for the fact that, eight years later, his gold-medal-winning run looks dated and quaint—like grainy footage of Bob Cousy's Celtics compared with LeBron and Kobe dueling in HD. "Today," observed one spectator at Cypress, "I'm not sure [Powers's] run would win the women's competition."
The speaker was Jake Burton, the benign emperor of U.S. snowboarding, who then hastened to say nice things about Powers, a rider of unquestionable talent. But Burton's point was valid. The halfpipe made its Olympic debut 12 years ago in Nagano, where the sign marking the venue said SNO-BOARDING. "They couldn't even spell it right," says Burton.
While the progression of tricks in the halfpipe was dramatic between Nagano and the '06 Turin Games, won by a 19-year-old phenom named Shaun White, since then it has achieved warp speed. White's gold-winning run in Turin, highlighted by back-to-back triple spins called 1080s, would not have gotten him into the finals last week at Cypress.
Which wasn't a problem for White. Now 23 and deeply weary of hearing himself referred to as the Flying Tomato (he prefers Red Zeppelin or Animal, based on his resemblance to the Muppet drummer), White arrived in Vancouver with an improved net worth—he pulled down $9 million in endorsements last year—and, he said, "a pretty mean run" up his sleeve. It was a measure of how far he is ahead of the competition that he didn't need that run to clinch victory.
Much like his gold-winning run in Turin, White's first ride last Wednesday night was highlighted by back-to-back 1080s. But there was a difference. While rotating horizontally, he was also flipping forward. The resulting off-axis spin is called a cork. When the rider flips twice, as White did, the trick is referred to as a double cork. The difference between a 1080 and a double-cork 1080 is the difference, roughly, between "the lightning bug and the lightning," as Mark Twain said on a different subject.
Double-corked tricks were the halfpipers' equivalent of the four-minute mile. As recently as a year ago no one was landing them in competition. "And now," White observed on the eve of the Games, "we're up to three in one run."
The last time "cork" was uttered this often in a sports setting, Sammy Sosa got suspended for eight games. It was all the buzz around the pipe: Which riders had the double cork in their quiver? You had, among others, Finland's Peetu (P2) Piiroinen, who took the silver, and surprise bronze medalist Scotty Lago of the U.S., who left Vancouver abruptly three days later, after a couple of racy photos surfaced on the Internet. Lago was reprimanded by the grandees of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, who won gold in the unofficial Hypocritical Stuffed Shirts competition. The pics—really rather harmless—were snapped while Lago was celebrating with teammates. One of them showed a woman biting down on his medal. (Perhaps she was checking to see if it was corked?)
Also in the double-corked club: Switzerland's Iouri (iPod) Podladtchikov, who finished fourth, and Kazuhiro Kokubo, the dreadlocked Japanese rider who came in eighth, possibly distracted by the furor he'd raised back home. On the day the Japanese contingent flew to Vancouver, Kokubo arrived at the airport with his tie loose and his trousers sagging. For his egregious lack of conformity, he was forced to issue an apology and suspended from the opening ceremonies. (We hereby award silver to the stuffed shirts in Japan.)
One rider in the women's field was believed capable of executing the double cork. But Torah Bright didn't throw it down at Cypress. No matter. After botching her first run in the finals—Bright crashed twice—the effervescent Aussie launched into the devilishly difficult switch backside 720, which requires her to take off backward (or "switch") into two blind spins, then stick a blind landing. She did and won Australia's first gold medal of these Games.