* White gets flak for withdrawal
* Concerns over slopestyle safety assuaged (adds new quotes, tweaks after women’s heats)
By Nick Mulvenney
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Shaun White was not forgotten as slopestyle snowboarding got the Sochi Olympics underway on Thursday but while there was disappointment at his absence there were no echoes of the safety concerns that prompted the American’s withdrawal.
White, the biggest name in the extreme sport, pulled out of the slopestyle on Wednesday concerned that an “intimidating” course on which he jammed his hand in practice might jeopardise his halfpipe title defence.
In an event which borrows some of its tricks and attitude from skateboarding, it was little surprise that the twice Olympic halfpipe champion came in for some trash-talk from his fellow competitors.
Canadians Max Parrot and Sebastien Toutant led the way with tweets suggesting American White had pulled out because he was scared not of injury, but of losing.
“Mr. White. It’s easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win,” read Toutant’s tweet.
While Parrot stood by his comment, Toutant later deleted his ,” message and said it had been misinterpreted.
“I deleted the tweet because some people took it the wrong way,” he told reporters after finishing third in Thursday’s first heat to book himself a place in the final.
”I wasn’t even hating on Shaun at all, I was just saying it’s a bummer because he’s the rider that everyone says is the best.
“He’s the one everyone wants the chance to compete against and prove that you could do better. I‘m kind of sad that he decided to pull out, that’s all I wanted to say.”
However, Toutant did not let White off the hook completely, saying: ”He decided a couple of months ago that he was going to do both (slopestyle and halfpipe). To take an American spot away from another one of the guys, some American (snowboarder) is probably today, probably sitting at home angry.
“I don’t see why he wouldn’t compete, it’s perfect here.”
His mood was reflected by most of the riders on a brilliant sunny morning at the Rhosa Khutor Extreme Park and most of the competitors were happy with the safety of the course.
Despite what looks to the layman like a terrifying descent down the mountain along rails and over jumps that send the snowboarders twisting high into the air, Jamie Nicholls said alterations over the last few days had created a “perfect” run.
“There’s been a few changes to the course and now it’s working really well, you can tell by the standard of riding that’s going off. It’s sunny so what more can you ask for?” said the Briton, who finished fourth to take a final spot.
“I didn’t think it was dangerous, you just had to get used to it. If we all come to an agreement that something needs changing, that’s what happens. It’s the same at every contest.”
PROBLEMS “FOR GIRLS”?
Finn Peetu Piiroinen suggested the high jumps might be a problem “for the girls” but women’s halfpipe Olympic champion Torah Bright said the problems with the course were more about overall quality.
“It’s not too big, everybody rides jumps this big, the problem was we are the best at what we do and the course just wasn’t up to par,” the Australian told reporters after finishing second in her heat.
”There were lots of unhappy people, you know, this is the debut of slopestyle, we want to put on a great show for the world, so that was a bit disheartening.
“But obviously with lots of riding input and a very open forum, they changed some things so it was great, we’re going to put on a great show.”
Canadian Spencer O‘Brien admitted that some of the younger women might have been intimidated by the height of the jumps.
“They’re very big, even the small ones are big, (but) to see all the ladies riding this well on this size of a course is a testament to how far our sport has come,” she said.
There were no major injuries reported on Thursday, although Norwegian Kjersti Buaas required medical attention after a nasty fall in the women’s heats and Scotty James was left sore after a tumble of his own.
“I was really embarrassed, I actually hurt my ‘man parts’ real bad and I was in a lot of pain, and I didn’t really know where to put my hands,” the Australian teenager said.
Toutant said risk was all part and parcel of slopestyle snowboarding events.
“If you enter any slopestyle contest and think it’s not going to be dangerous, you should find another sport,” he said. (Editing by Julian Linden/Mitch Phillips)