At the end of the run that won him his third Olympic gold medal, Shaun White stood by himself at the base of the halfpipe he’d just made his personal stage. When the score came in—97.75, just a shade below perfect—White tossed his board in the air and screamed in ecstasy, celebrating alone in the snow, surrounded by but apart from his fellow competitors and the crowd. Moments later, White broke down in tears, embracing the relatives who’d traveled to see him make history in Pyeongchang. But White’s solitude at the moment of his greatest triumph felt symbolic and appropriate. The greatest snowboarder of all time has always stood alone, both by virtue of his unique skills and because, as one of his American competitors put it in 2014, “the whole snowboarding community doesn’t really like Shaun.”
For as long as their sport has been a sport, snowboarders have seen themselves as members of a collective—stakeholders in a chilled-out traveling circus who lift each other up and cheer each other on. White, by contrast, has always stood apart from his peers and placed himself on a pedestal—a self-conception that’s hard to quibble with given all he’s accomplished with a board strapped beneath his feet.
NBC sees White the way he sees himself.
On Monday and Tuesday nights, the network didn’t show its viewers a snowboarding contest. Instead, it broadcast the Shaun White show, directing all its star-making apparatus toward the promotion of White as a singular talent for whom the 2018 Games were the final act in a clichéd redemption arc. Over and over, we heard that White failed to medal in Sochi, and that he was determined to return to his rightful place at the top of the podium in Pyeongchang.
This triumph-over-adversity tale is not only bogus—Shaun White has never been and never will be an underdog—but it’s also somewhat offensive, given the ugly news that’s come out about White in the past several years. But NBC studiously avoided mentioning White’s unpopularity with his fellow snowboarders, or the sexual harassment lawsuit he settled last year, or anything else that might dispel the hero myth the network had spent so much time and money crafting.
White is a scintillating performer, and a remarkably clutch one. He found himself in second place going into his last run, needing to put up a dizzyingly high score to turn silver into gold. In a span of 20 seconds, he pulled off five insane aerial maneuvers, all of which looked less like tricks than special effects.
It was a great sports moment, and a reminder that White is the rare athlete who almost always lives up to the hype. But he wasn’t the only snowboarder who thrilled the crowd in Pyeongchang. Ayumu Hirano, a 19-year-old Japanese snowboarding wunderkind, had stood atop the leaderboard for much of the night thanks to an awe-inspiring performance that featured back-to-back 1440s.
When White, Hirano, and 23-year-old Australian Scotty James ascended the podium to receive their ceremonial stuffed animals, NBC analyst Todd Richards gave the silver and bronze medalists a strange kind of credit. Hirano and James, he said, were partly “responsible for Shaun riding his best. … Two of the most progressive riders on the planet forced Shaun White to up his game on the last run.”
It was a telling description, one that encapsulated NBC’s blinkered approach to broadcasting the games. Hirano and James were important only to the extent that they abetted the American star’s self-actualization. By focusing so intently on Shaun White, and by peddling the fiction that White’s toughest competitor was himself, the network undersold what will surely be one of the most dramatic, tightly contested events in Pyeongchang. Even if you’re watching the Olympics through red-white-and-blue glasses, it doesn’t take anything away from the American to acknowledge that the foreigners are good, too.
NBC’s coverage of White demonstrates it’s incapable of acknowledging that the greatest athletes can sometimes be the biggest jerks. The network likes to portray its American Olympic heroes as cuddly, wholesome, and likable, even when they’re nothing of the sort. As a storyline, “Shaun White: Greatest Snowboarder Ever” pales in comparison to “Shaun White: Greatest Snowboarder Ever and a Super Nice Guy.” NBC needed us to want White to win—to see his victory as an unambiguous triumph. That means, by extension, that a gold medal for Hirano would’ve been seen, above all else, as a defeat for White. In reality, the contest would’ve been just as thrilling either way.
After the event was over, when the NBC Olympics Twitter account was in the midst of sending out 25 missives about White in the span of an hour, Richards declared, “What an amazing day for snowboarding. What a tremendous day for Shaun White.” He was right on both counts. It was a tremendous day for White. But the triumph for White’s sport didn’t depend on his capturing a third gold medal. Rather, for those of us who don’t typically watch snowboarding, the joy of the evening came from watching three world-class, well-matched athletes fight it out until the very end. White’s victory didn’t validate snowboarding. It showed what viewers lose when NBC paints with a broad brush and a limited palette.