It’s been a tough run up to the Olympics for mainstream media outlets and sponsors looking for Wheaties-worthy names and predictions to come to fruition. Lindsey Vonn, who with her stacked alpine racing record and relationship with Tiger Woods was the most hyped American athlete supposed to dominate Sochi, no doubt threw Visa and Red Bull into a panic attack when she re-tore her ACL during a November training run, forcing her to pull out of the Olympics. Then Tom Wallisch, long the de facto captain of America’s first Olympic freeski team, didn’t accumulate enough points or curry enough coaches’ favor to earn a spot on the slope team. Mainstream America’s action sport/ginger-headed guitar hero, Shaun White, was supposed to showcase his inhuman talent by Michael Phelps’ing both the snowboard halfpipe and slopestyle fields – a feat he hadn’t accomplished since the 2009 X Games. But lo and behold, the decidedly large Sochi slopestyle course, which also recently took out Torstein Horgmo’s collarbone, caused White a sufficient enough wrist injury to pull out of the slope contest and focus solely on pipe, in which he hopes to win a third consecutive gold.
The leaked video of Torstein Horgmo's collarbone crash, which he initially blamed on sticky rails.
Much talk has been made of late of the Sochi course, which surprised many when it was revealed not to be a few melting piles of snow at too low of an elevation. I’d made this prediction myself after last year’s test event was cancelled due to low snow, but instead Sochi organizers managed to outdo the most extreme prime-time course on the calendar – the Aspen X Games course – by linking together a series of wild-looking jibs with a line of truly enormous jumps. Athletes had complained about the sheer size of the many of the jumps and the fact that they were step-downs and not step-overs, which effectively cause the athlete to “fall” farther to the Earth that if the takeoff and landing were at the same height. Slope wizard Chas Guldemond described the experience of launching the final jump as something akin to “dropping out of the sky.”
A POV tour of the Sochi slopestyle course from Russian slope rider Alexey Sobolov
Nonetheless, the enormous final jump, which has since been cut down in size slightly, should provide no excuses for slope finals filled with the gymnastics trick Bob Costas will be looking for – the dreaded triple cork. Unfortunately, the Flying Red Tomato (are we still using that moniker, Costas?) will not be throwing down said trick on the course in his patchwork Burton jacket, and alas, Target’s Shaun White Stunt Scooter sales will likely take a hit.
The 2014 Winter X Games slope course, with minimal time to recover between jumps.
But feelings among the field are mixed. The X Games slope course – which keeps the space between jumps to a scary and absolute minimum in order to not give a viewer the chance to imagine an excuse to switch channels – has been terrifying for its own reasons over the years, and big jumps don’t appear to be to blame for the few injuries suffered so far, according to slope athletes like Sage Kotsenburg:
“Okay, let me squash this. The slopestyle course is BIG here, I'm in Sochi! Why people are claiming it is the sketchiest most dangerous course and deeming it 'unsafe' while they haven't even taken a run in it is beyond me. We just finished 3rd day of practice here awhile ago, the course was really good. It is shaping up to be a very very nice course, especially because there has not been a course ever built on this run before I think they did a really good job. Accidents do happen in slopestyle and people get hurt, in this case it was definitely not the courses fault, just a freak and super unfortunate accident. Let's go have some fun tomorrow during qualifiers!"
But Seb Toutant went further, and basically called Shaun White out for using the course as an excuse to pull out of an event he might suffer shame in by not winning:
Mr. White... It's easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can't win...— Sebastien Toutant (@SebToots) February 5, 2014
Whatever the case, with the “Jackass” reputation slopestyle is undoubtedly taking into its first Olympics, the media hysteria will no doubt focus on the irresponsible danger of the sport, especially with multiple athletes riding with blown knees, while downhill racers try to avoid fences on an icy track pushing speeds of 85 miles an hour. With mainstream media's unfamiliarity with this new Olympic discipline, I'll expect to see wild fits and starts of understanding about what the hell is actually going on on that damn slope course with all those loony metal things and cheesewedge launchers. I'll just be waiting till Ira Glass pulls it all together for a soothing Sunday afternoon of "This American Life."