Words: T. Bird
Photos: Huggy

The men’s snowboard halfpipe final tonight was a nail biter to say the least, and in the end, two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White got flat out beat by Iouri Podladtchikov.

There’s no doubt that men’s halfpipe will more than likely be one of the most watched events at the Sochi Olympic Games this year, and although slopestyle had an exciting introduction and a massive audience, pipe is the bread and butter for NBC and the IOC every four years. Add to the fact that two Americans have already won the gold in snowboarding and one other American–Shaun White–was the odds on favorites to take the top spot in the pipe, and this event was certainly the most anticipated halfpipe contest in history.

The big question that loomed both here and abroad, however, revolved around the pipe itself rather than those who would be riding it. Rumors began to surface after practice on Saturday night that the pipe was not up to par, and then the riders began to voice their concerns. They got beat up during practice, many of them unable to take a clean run through the pipe, even while simply straight airing every hit. Olympic officials said changes were made, but were they enough? After tonight, many snowboard fans might say no.

I cannot personally comment on how the pipe was riding, however, if said rumors are indeed true, it’s ludicrous. If the FIS could manage to put their inflated ego aside in order to provide the best pipe competitors on Earth with a halfway decent venue, it would do them wonders with an endemic audience that is highly critical of the ignorant, inflated, and downright idiotic organization that governs snowboarding. With $52 billion already invested in these Games and much more at their disposal, I find it absurd that the Federation Internationale du Ski can’t muster up the humility to hire Gunny, Pat Melandoski, or Frank Wells to cut the Olympic superpipe. Those guys understand exactly what the snowboarders want because they have dedicated their lives to the betterment of pipe riding. Instead, the FIS–per usual–wanted to show the snowboard world that they could do it better than we do, and as soon as the riders started speaking their minds (as they should), it instead showed the snowboard world that the FIS, in fact, had failed miserably.

But that’s beside the point, and no one would know how the pipe would hold up until the start of the event. All we could do was cross our fingers and hope that the innate talent of the Olympians would override a less-than-perfect pipe, and in my opinion, it did, but there were some really big surprises in Sochi tonight, much of which will more than likely be blamed on a poorly build halfpipe.

The qualifiers kicked off at 2pm, and how they worked was out of the forty-plus riders in two separate heats, the top three in each heat would automatically advance to the finals, while the remaining six highest scorers would battle it out in semi-finals for a spot in the big show. In heat one, it was Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, Switzerland’s Christian Haller, and fellow countryman David Habluetzel who automatically advanced to the final while in heat two, American Shaun White, Japan’s Taku Hiraoka, and the US team’s Danny Davis posted the top three scores and were headed to the final. Shaun posted a first run score of 95.75–the highest on the day–and it seemed that he was still only in second gear as he only put down one doublecork, though he’s got many more in his bag. Hirano put up a first run score of 92.25 with a flurry of doublecorks and as always, the little man was going gigantic. Ayumu and Danny looked to be Shaun’s biggest threats going into finals, but the semis would force a few others into that mix. As for the questions I had about how the judging would go down, it was indeed Shaun’s amplitude and flips that got him the highest score of the day, but Danny’s run scored a 92.00, so they were definitely scoring Danny’s more stylish run on an almost equal level. What it would come down to tonight was height, and Danny, Shaun, and Ayumu had it.

Qualifying for semis was Arthur Longo (FRA), Tim-Kevin Ravnjak (SLO), Wangcheng Shi (CHN), Greg Bretz (USA), Seamus O’Connor (IRL), Johann Baisamy (FRA), Yiwei Zhang (CHN), Taylor Gold (USA), Kent Callister (AUS), Nathan Johnstone (AUS), Iouri Podladtchikov (SUI), and Jan Scherrer (SUI). Noticably absent from the pipe was Finand’s Peetu Piiroinen, the silver medal winner in Vancouver. Sources say he woke up this morning and had a bad feeling about competing in the halfpipe as he’s been off the pipe circuit for about a year now.

Iouri took the top spot in the semis with a commanding run that scored him an 87.50. Greg Bretz came in second and earned himself a spot in the finals as well, followed by Kent Callister, Yiwei Zhang, Shi Wancheng, and young Slovenian Tim-Kevin Ravnjak. They would join the six riders who qualified automatically for a pipe final of the ages.

Finals kicked off at exactly 9:30pm and these twelve riders were all looking to become the fifth Olympic gold medalist since snowboarding’s introduction to the Games. The first of two runs ended with young Ayumu Hirano in first place, followed by Chinese rider Yiwei Zhang in second and Iouri in third. The glaring observation at the end of run one, however, was a lack of Americans in medal contention, most notably Shaun White. Shaun, Danny, and Bretz both went down on their first runs, with Danny falling hard in the flat bottom. If you looked closely enough, you could see the frustration in the riders’ faces and there was certainly frustration that could be seen in the fans as I heard more than one grumble about a “sloppy” event, as very few riders in the field put a run together without a fall.

Run two would prove to be one of the most shocking heats in Olympic history. As the sixth rider to drop, Iouri put down an insane run: Method, frontside five, double McTwist, frontside doublecork ten, and the yolo flip, giving him a 94.75 and putting him in the lead comfortably. Bretz and Danny went down again, putting them out of medal contention and leaving the only hope of an American medal resting squarely on Shaun’s shoulders. But it wasn’t over yet. Japan’s Taku Hiraoka put down a second run score of 92.25 that consisted of a backside five, frontside nine, backside nine, frontside ten, Cab doublecork ten, and a frontside doublecork ten, putting him in second place and bumping fellow countryman Ayumu Hirano down to third. But Ayumu dropped next, putting down a backside air, frontside ten, Cab doublecork ten, frontside nine, backside nine, and a frontside double cork ten. His score came in at a 93.50, putting him in second and moving Taka down to third.

And then it was the moment that Shaun White lives for. The last rider to drop, the world’s eyes on him, ready to take home the gold.

But it wouldn’t happen. Not tonight.

From Shaun’s first hit he looked thrown off. He started things off with a massive method into a frontside doublecork ten, and when came down from his third hit yolo flip, he buttchecked the landing, and it was over from there. The entire crowd gasped in unison, but Shaun somehow kept it going like nothing had happened. He went into a frontside five, then a double McTwist, and an alley-oop backside rodeo where he bobbled as well. It was by all accounts a signature Shaun White pipe run in terms of tricks, but not in terms of execution. Stillness hung in the air while everyone was waiting for his score to come in and when it did, it sent shockwaves through the stadium. 90.25, good for fourth. Iouri Podladtchikov had won the Olympics and Shaun White had finished outside of the podium. Seeing as this is more than likely the last time the world will see Shaun in an Olympic venue, it was a tough pill to swallow, both for him and his worldwide fanbase.

In the coming days, much will be said about the condition of the pipe, and I’ll leave that up to you to decide whatever you like, but the fact of the matter is that Ipod landed an insanely technical and clean run and absolutely deserved a gold medal while Shaun White simply didn’t. It’s a shocker, but that seems to be the theme for snowboarding here in Russia, so why not keep it going? Congratulations to Iouri for putting it down when it counted on the world’s biggest stage. There’s more to come from the 2014 Olympics, but that’s all for tonight from Sochi.

Results:
1. Iouri Podladtchikov (SUI)
2. Ayumu Hirano (JPN)
3. Taku Hiraoka (JPN)

More Olympic coverage:
Sage Kotsenburg wins men’s slopestyle
Jamie Anderson wins gold in women’s slopestyle