Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Shaun White, What are you thinking?

Source: Photo: Martin Schoeller

Shaun White, What Are You Thinking?

I suppose the only place to really start on this is a little bit of Shaun White background. I’m sure you all know about it so I’ll leave the facts short and get onto the wild speculation as fast as I can. Shaun White can claim to be the greatest competition snowboarder of the modern age. Anyone who disagrees with this is wrong. His record speaks for itself and I don’t need to go into it. He is also the most marketable and commercially successful snowboarder/skateboarder/action sports athlete in the world. Yes he is. The proof? Forbes estimates that in 2008 he earned $9 million, almost all of it in endorsements. None of his competitors earned over $1 million. Since then he has won another Olympic gold medal and his commercial value continues to rise.

As a Snowboard Instructor in the US I’ve talked to plenty of kids about snowboarding. Often the conversation goes like this:

“So who is your favorite snowboarder?”
“Shaun White.”
“Cool. Why do you like him”
“I don’t know. Because he’s the best?”
“Sweet. Did you see him in the X Games?”
“Did you see him in the Olympics?”
“Have you ever seen him snowboard?”
“Only on my X Box.”

No Joke. This is what we mean when we say that an athlete has transcended their sport. People need have never even seen the sport but still know who the star is. Shaun White is on that level. That is why he makes me despair. The exposure that he brings is great for snowboarding but that interest does not extend further than brand White.

He thinks differently from other pros. Of course he isn’t going to share his private half pipe. He doesn’t want the competition to learn his new trick. He is pushing himself in splendid isolation, not the sport as a whole. I think that was pretty evident when he failed to qualify for the slopestyle final at the last X Games, he’d taken his eye off the competition. His is a focused and individualistic approach to what many see as a communal activity. From the articles I’ve read he appears to be a nice guy. He just has very different priorities from the majority of snowboard pros. He is a lone guy leading from the front, and I’m not going to hate on him for that.
Source: Transworld Business Target Advert

Which makes the TTR Beijing Air and Style a bit confusing and annoying. Here he is “presenting” an event for a tour which he does not even seem to support. He only seemed to be there to pose for photos with various suited guys. He is a bigger name than any of the sponsors, any of the other athletes and even snowboarding itself. His name attached to the event gets people around the world, who may know very little about snowboarding, to watch it. The fact that while this is going on his silence is undermining TTR’s position on Olympic qualifying, and therefore the importance of the tour itself. That annoys me.

He hasn’t said anything about the IOC telling TTR to sling their hook at all. When I can find a quote from Sebastien Toutant but not from Shaun White, Double Olympic Gold medal winner, something is wrong. Has nobody asked him? Surely someone has asked the face of action sports what he thinks about the whole dirty, stinking mess? There hasn’t been anything posted on the News section of his official website since July I read lots of articles about this subject too, even The Economist has written about it. They all come out in favor of TTR. Nobody (except the IOC) think that FIS should be running the qualification process, not even at least one of their own. So why so quiet? Well I actually don’t think that it has anything to do with sponsors or big business telling him to keep his mouth shut. I think that if he cared he would speak up. My conclusion is that he doesn’t care. As one of the few guys who do both halfpipe and slopestyle he has been through the whole process before and has toed the line. Why should it be any different this time? He changed his schedule to fit in with the Olympic qualifying season and so it would be pretty hypocritical of him to object to the whole process now.

He is not the snowboarder’s snowboarder. He is the kid’s snowboarder, the granny’s snowboarder, the CEO’s snowboarder and the marketing manager’s snowboarder. He gives the world everything they want in an athlete in a neat little package. He doesn’t care who runs the competition, just that he wins it.

Written by Kenji Lim
(Guest blogger)

More mainstream press articles on Shaun White:

More on Olympic Snowboarding Slopestyle: 


White Knight said...

Good for him. I also surf and skate and all of it before they became big sports. I've seen time and again "Experts?" question the motivations and sensitivites of surviving in "The Show". So go make sure invite all the other, only million dollar endorsement guys, to do something not so smart and get ruined by trying to help due to the politics. Better yet, be an honest brave Blogger Kenji, and ask him if he cares. The great ones are highly intelligent and will often disarm you with an honest answer. None of them get that good without getting broken and beaten and toughened by something way more painful than golf or tennis. The great ones almost always redefine these sports by caring and comitting the M O S T. After you read this, go watch Shaun White's last X Game Half Pipe Skate video (yes, skate too, he's that good), leave your not caring comment on the table while you watch him. Look then closely at the enthusiastic joy in his eyes that is not there for the fame and greed and not caring. To the contrary, that run shows you how much he cared and became so committed he was so unselfishly terrified of dissapointing millionsof complete strangers. Including you Kenji Lim. Yes, feel the urgency and commitment in attempting to throw each one of those psychtically beautiful technical combinations, back to back. Call him Mr. White from now on Kenji because he gave that last run for you too. He humbly shared and asked for nothing more than your attention. Ask then what have you ever given him.

Kenji Lim said...

White Knight, I'd like to respond.

I am humbled and grateful for a very well thought out and eloquently written comment to a rather blunted blog. I actually agree with everything you say. Mr White has pushed himself all his life and shown commitment that I cannot begin to appreciate to be able to do what he does, and quite rightly he is a titan of both skating and snowboarding. He deserves all the accolades that he gets. I have indeed seen his last X Games Half Pipe Skate run and agree that he was the best by a country mile. I am in no way questioning his talent, character or his motivations for wanting to compete.

I don't know if you're having a pop at me for claiming that I am an "expert"? I haven't said that I am and neither would I. I'm just writing what I feel, and in that sense I am an honest blogger. I do as much research as I can and I will admit that I have not asked Mr White if he cares about whether the FIS run qualification for the Olympics. It was a speculative opinion piece, not an interview. If I have the opportunity to ask him I will do.

I'm not sure that our wires aren't a little crossed here. I am NOT saying at all that Mr White does not care about Snowboarding or Skateboarding or being the best or pushing himself to be the best athlete he can be or redefining the sport or anything else to do with him being amazing at Snowboarding. The only time I talk negatively at all in the blog is when talking about politics. Now you do mention politics but please see that this is the point I am trying to make. When the athletes do not openly talk about politics they leave all decisions to the politicians by default, and I don't think that's a good thing. In many ways snowboarding is an unusual sport because many athletes do care about who runs the sport and are speaking up about it. I think that that is a good thing. Slopestyle's entry into the Olympics is an important moment and decisions made now will have effects down the line.

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