SOCHI, RUSSIA – Ayumu Hirano and Taku Hiraoka earned Japan’s first medals at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Tuesday by taking second and third, respectively, in the men’s snowboard halfpipe.
The 15-year-old Hirano led after the first round with a score of 90.75 and surpassed that with a second-round jump of 93.50 that pushed 18-year-old Hiraoka into third place. Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchikov, or I-Pod as he’s commonly known, took the gold with a tremendous second-run worth 94.75 points.
Hirano and Hiraoka became the first Asians to win medals in an Olympic snowboarding event.
Hiraoka got just 45.50 points on his first run but produced a winner the second time around. The high school student, who took second at last year’s world championships, earned 92.25 points to go second behind Podladtchikov with only Hirano and two-time defending Olympic champion Shaun White of the United States to go.
Hirano, a middle school student followed Hiraoka with another clutch performance that made him Japan’s youngest Winter Olympic medalist.
White, the best snowboarder of his era and one of the best-known and best-marketed athletes at the Sochi Games, didn’t even earn a medal. He scored 90.25 and finished fourth.
The 27-year-old American, who opted out of the Olympic slopestyle debut and put all his chips in the halfpipe, where he hoped to win a third straight gold medal, got knocked off off the throne by Podladtchikov, the Russian-born inventor of the “Yolo,” the trick that White could not master.
“I’m disappointed,” White said. “I hate the fact I nailed it in practice, but it happens. It’s hard to be consistent.”
Podladtchikov, who now lives in and competes for Switzerland, landed the trick successfully at an event in Europe last season, but hadn’t done it since.
“I’m about to faint. I haven’t seen the gold yet,” said Podladtchikov, who gets his gold Wednesday. “That’s why I don’t believe it.”
I-Pod scored an 86.5 in his first run — clearly in medal contention — and then won it on his second attempt. The Yolo includes a total of 1440 degrees of spin — two head-over-heels flips and two 360-degree turns. Four years ago, it was unthinkable, but not anymore. He landed it and even though he only threw five tricks, when most riders were trying six in a supersized, super-slushy halfpipe, the judges liked what they saw.
As did I-Pod, who spiked his snowboard into the ground like a football and threw his goggles into the crowd.
“He’s incredible,” American Danny Davis, the 10th-place finisher, said of Podladtchikov. “That run on that halfpipe. Wow.”
I-Pod struggled in the qualifying round earlier Tuesday, forcing him into a semifinal round while the White and the five other top scorers went directly to the final. The extra runs seemed to help, as did the cold night air which seemed to improve the condition of the halfpipe, which competitors had been complaining about all week.
I-Pod scored 87.50 on his first semifinal run, clearing his way to the final. His 94.75 in the second final run put huge pressure on White, whose final runs at the last two Olympics have been nothing more than pressure-free victory rides.
White stood at the top of the halfpipe, high-fived and bumped knuckles with his coach, clapped his hands and away he went.
The first two jumps were flawless — higher than anyone and landed more solidly.
Then, the Yolo. Tucking his hands together to generate torque, then waving one like a cowboy riding a bucking bronc, the form looked good during his three seconds in the air.
But on the landing, he skittered down the pipe and lost speed, which meant he lost height on the next jump, as well.
The landing on his last double cork was less than perfect, too — his knees buckled and nearly touched the snow. Across the finish line, White raised one finger in the air and raised his hands in victory. Yes, sometimes judges reward athletes for what they’ve done, not what they just did.
Not this time. White’s fourth-place score, a 90.25, came up, and he broke into a big smile. He gave Podladtchikov a big hug and fatherly mussed his hair. That kid earned it. And the champion had nothing to complain about.
“I saw videos of Shaun doing it really well,” I-Pod said. “I got bummed, said, ‘Damn, that’s my trick and he’s doing it better than me.’ Today, I guess I was doing it a little better.”