KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Shaun White stood at the top of the halfpipe, the last contestant of the competition, needing a near-perfect run to capture his third consecutive gold medal at the Winter Olympics. He has built an empire on such moments.
It felt too perfect, too scripted, even by the standards of storytelling that White has inspired. The crowd hushed in anticipation of another command performance.
White sped down the hill and crested the leading edge of the massive halfpipe and began what was sure to be a monumental run. And that is when it happened — a hard landing here, a gasp-inducing bobble there, the dominance of the world’s greatest halfpipe snowboarder slipping away with each diagonal weave downhill.
White ended up in fourth, a placing probably higher than he deserved, ceding the Olympic throne to someone else for the first time since 2002.
“For me to be remembered in the sport, I don’t think tonight makes or breaks my career,” White said. “I’ve been snowboarding for so long, and I love it so much, that I’m happy to take this for what it is and move on and continue to ride.”
It was Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland — I-Pod to his friends — who won the gold medal by doing a trick and a run that White and the others could not match.
“It really felt like there was no fighting at all,” Podladtchikov said. “It felt like it was all meant to be. It’s really weird.”
More than anything, the night felt like the edge of a new era. Ayumu Hirano, a 15-year-old from Japan, won the silver medal, and his countryman Taku Hiraoka won bronze. For the first time since the halfpipe was added to the Olympics in 1998, there were no Americans on the podium.
Four Americans were in the 40-man field, and three of them advanced to the 12-man final. But Greg Bretz and Danny Davis, two of the snowboarders who had previously beaten White in a halfpipe competition, each fell on both of their runs. Davis finished 10th, Bretz 12th.
“I hate not landing two runs,” Davis said. “Especially in this event, with such a big crowd and the amount of media here. But, back to normal life, man.”
Davis called White’s fourth-place score “a gift” from judges, and said the result was good for the sport.
“The world knows now that there’s other snowboarders beside Shaun,” Davis said. “It’s great, man. There’s a bunch of good riders in our sport, and they deserve some credit, too.”
Podladtchikov, who grew up in Davos but competed for Russia at the 2006 Turin Games, can sometimes match White’s acrobatics. His Yolo (“You Only Live Once”) flip, 1,440 degrees of rotation that includes two aerial somersaults, was a rare trick that White did not master first.
Podladtchikov landed it perfectly, anchoring a run that was awarded 94.75 points out of 100. The cheering crowd waved Swiss and Russian flags. Podladtchikov moved to Switzerland from Russia when he was 8, and the merging of time and place hit hard.
“I love to be here,” he said. “I love to speak Russian. It’s my mother language, and it reminds me of so many things.”
Six riders had a chance to beat Podladtchikov’s score. Davis was one of them. A near-perfect first run was upended by a stumble in the flat portion of the pipe between the 22-foot walls, a choppy and sugary gutter of uneven snow and ice. (Davis blamed it on a “snow snake.”) His second run was doomed from the start, out of balance until he crashed while landing a trick.
Suspense built with each rider. Hiraoka elevated into second place. The 5-foot-3, 110-pound Hirano is the rare competitor who can launch himself out of the pipe and reach the heights of White, as if filled with helium. His score, 93.5, put him in second place. There was only one competitor left.
White came to Sochi hoping to win two gold medals, having spent a year preparing for the debut of slopestyle, an event he dominated on the snowboarding circuit a decade ago. But after a couple of days of training on the slopestyle course last week, amid concerns over the size and shapes of the jumps, he pulled out to focus on the halfpipe.
The American Sage Kotsenburg won the event.
“The slopestyle course had some issues, and I just felt like my best bet was to focus on the halfpipe,” White said Tuesday. “Then the halfpipe had some issues.”
The night before the competition, some athletes suggested that the event be postponed because of poor conditions and a lack of practice time. Crews worked overnight honing the shape of the pipe, which tilted downhill for about 250 yards. In the hour before the competition, workers sprinkled salt on its surface to get it to melt slightly and refreeze, and they sprayed it with water from large hoses. The result was not perfection but adequacy.
A few, like Davis, took pratfalls in the gutter of the pipe. Others flew above its walls and crashed hard on the deck. Qualifications weeded the unlikely podium crashers out of the contest. A temperature close to freezing during the prime-time finals helped keep the pipe intact.
Afterward, riders were reluctant to place blame on the pipe.
“Everybody had the same pipe to deal with,” Davis said.
White looked down at the pipe through his dark goggles. He had mastered the Yolo flip, and sometimes performed it better than Podladtchikov. With the gold medal on the line, he launched himself into it on the opposite side from where Podladtchikov performed his.
The image was not mirror. White’s board hit the lip of the pipe, bending but not breaking. He somehow stayed on his feet and sped across the pipe for his next trick. By then, his chance at winning a third gold medal was gone.
“I went for big tricks that only Iouri and myself are doing,” White said. “I could have played it safe, I guess, and tried to get in a decent score, but I really wanted to win. We came here on a mission, and it just wasn’t my night, which is really tough to say. It’s a big night.”