RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
One of the world's most famous snowboarders, American Shaun White, has announced that he is dropping out of the slopestyle event at the Sochi Olympics. It's scheduled to start tomorrow. He will still compete in the halfpipe, his usual sport, but White said that the Sochi slopestyle course, with its larger than usual jumps, is just too risky for him. From Sochi, NPR's Robert Smith reports.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Slopestyle snowboarding is the newest sport at the Olympics, although kids have been doing it for more than a decade. It's a ski hill filled obstacles. Imagine a skate park covered with snow. And yesterday, on the course, Shaun White was talking about how excited he was to show slopestyle to the world.
SHAUN WHITE: Massive jumps, multiple flips, there's rails, there's - you know, it's pretty exciting to watch.
SMITH: Slopestyle was scheduled to be the first event of the entire Olympics - before the opening ceremony, even - and Shaun White was the big celebrity, the big star of the show. But even yesterday, Shaun White was showing some reluctance. The jumps on the Rosa Khutor extreme course, as it's called, were cut too big, causing the snowboards to drop too far on the landing. One boarder said it was like jumping out of a building. One of the top snowboarders, Torstein Horgmo, broke his collarbone on the course on Monday. Shaun White tweaked his wrist on a takeoff yesterday. And he says he saw three other boarders injured at practice.
WHITE: You know, it's frustrating to see. It definitely puts a damper on the whole mood and, you know, it's kind of like you're getting ready to do your big trick and you see something like that. It's a bit intimidating and, I don't know, I mean, it's just unfortunate. So I'm hoping that the builders make some changes and that the course, maybe, you know, has a little bit more of a friendly vibe later on.
SMITH: But that was yesterday. Today Shaun White delivered a statement to NBC News that that said he was withdrawing, that he wanted to focus on winning his third gold medal in halfpipe, and he did not want to be hurt on the slopestyle course. To quote him: "The potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on." Certainly adding to his concern, Shaun White was already injured this season attempting a slopestyle jump.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Here comes Shaun White.
SMITH: During the qualifier for the Olympics, he botched a landing and planted his face into the snow.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And he caught that toe edge there. That was a brutal, brutal crash. Let's hope he's OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He's sitting up right now.
SMITH: For the last few days lots of athletes have expressed concern about the Sochi course, but so far Shaun White is the only athlete to withdraw. And in fact, some of his teammates on the U.S. slopestyle team had no problems with the course. Sage Kostenburg said, yesterday, he liked the big jumps.
SAGE KOSTENBURG: You got to come to a course with an open mind set. And some people were just like, freaking out because it's a big course. But it's built really good and the snow's getting better, the features are - you know, it's working its way in for sure. So I think you just got to take it feature by feature when you look at it. Because when you look at it, it is a crazy, big course, but every course is dangerous. This one's just a big course, it's just like X Games.
SMITH: Kostenburg and the other slopestyle boarders had spent a lot of time talking about how valuable it was to have Shaun White on the team. He was going to be the big TV draw to watch the event. But factoring into Shaun White's decision must've been how much he has to risk. He's got his own clothing line, snowboard products, sunglasses, he has a new band with a new album - Shaun White plays guitar - and a self-made documentary about his preparation for the Olympics.
(SOUNDBITE OF A DOCUMENTARY)
WHITE: I'm going into this Olympics with a new level of confidence. I want to be way beyond what anybody could imagine; not only show them that I came here to win but I want it to be very apparent - that there's no question
SMITH: With Shaun White dropping out of Slopestyle, it is a huge hit to the U.S. Team. They say they will not announce a replacement because the event starts less than 24 hours from now.
Robert Smith, NPR News, Sochi.