Call them the even-if Olympics.
Shaun White's bid to land a third consecutive halfpipe gold was going to be one of the most anticipated events of the Sochi Games even if he hadn't hit the deck in his first run of the finals like Tom Hanks' co-stars in "Captain Phillips."
Even if his friend and admirer Iouri Podladtchikov — a Switzerland-residing Russian native known, with Jobs-ian flair, as I-Pod — hadn't staged the run of his life and come down with a stratospheric score.
Even if someone else besides White had stood atop the halfpipe podium some other time since 2002.
Even if White hadn't dropped out of the other big snowboarding event to focus exclusively on this one.
All these things of course did happen in the run-up to White’s fateful last attempt, making it one of those climactic moments that a sports TV producer — and fan — stays up nights dreaming of.
"It just felt like," studio commentator Cris Collinsworth said shortly after it ended, "it was setting us up for one of those ‘you take it for the rest of your life’ kind of moments.’”
In TV terms, it was a win no matter what happened on that last run. Sure, a network likes a happy ending. But what it likes even more is a doubtful ending, for as long as possible, because that's what keeps us watching. Previous Games had White's win in the bag by the time his second run came around, taking the stress from fans but excitement from the telecast.
This time NBC got what it wanted: a for-all-the-marbles moment at the end of a competition, a finale that had potential for drama and endless commercials. It milked this constantly. Of course, NBC in Sochi can always milk things constantly, because these events happened many hours before they air, and so the network controls what it shows, and when, and how much. But it had a lot more to milk this time out. And it used the whole dairy farm.
"Shaun White has put himself in a come-from-behind situation."
"It's simple now Shaun — you gotta bring out your trick."
"The most dominant force in halfpipe snowboarding ever."
"Shaun White never been in this position before."
So is there, like, a snowboard competition going on or something?
The international-feed cameras in Sochi are everywhere, which does allow for some great shots.
At the bottom of the mountain, where I-Pod could be seen reacting ever so slightly when White faltered.
High above the side of the pipe, where every McTwist and Yolo flip could be captured in all its airitude, preferably in slow motion to enhance the Superman effect.
And at the top of the mountain, where perhaps the most melancholy moment of the White album was recorded Tuesday. I-Pod had just completed his massive run. White was in the tent at the top of the hill, conferring with coaches, sipping water, pacing not-nervously-but-totally-nervously before his last-shot-at-the-dream run. Did he know what just happened? Yes, a TV monitor directly in his sight line, just over the back of his head, was showing I-Pod being mobbed at the bottom of the hill after his impeccable run. White couldn't not see it. It highlighted just what these guys face. There's your opponent, his success beamed right up into your pre-race ritual, his celebrations either your greatest motivation or a most daunting specter.
Then White wobbled and bobbled, he got to the bottom of the hill and couldn't cobble together the run he needed. It was a strange moment. The focus was on him, all anyone outside the Swiss Russian expat community cared about was him. Even I-Pod had shuffled over to him, looking at him, talking to him, deferring to him. But the announcers are told to focus on the winner, at least for a minute, so they did, before the slopeside reporter had her moment with White, had the moment we all wanted with White.
Does Shaun White have the million-dollar smile all the time or only when he wins? We never had the chance to learn before. Turns out he has it when he loses too, at least a little. Through the disappointment, through the strained facial muscles, through the gritted teeth, he smiled. He's trying to stay upbeat, because he's always upbeat, because he's always had reason to be upbeat.
Then he had, surprisingly, an explanation. It had to do with preparation. Too much of it, apparently.
"I've been here too long," he said, noting he usually just comes in for a day or two, competes and gets out, instead of spending a week in training. “I think I’ve just been thinking about it too much.” The only thing more surreal than an athlete explainign why he failed is an athlete saying he was simply too prepared. The only thing more surreal than Shaun White leaving an Olympics without a medal is Shaun White explaining why he didn’t win one.
Quoth Collinsworth: “It was sort of like watching Peyton Manning at the Super Bowl. Wait a minute now, the coronation was supposed to happen tonight, and it just didn’t.”
But NBC can celebrate. The ratings haven’t come in but they will, and they will be good. TiVo has reported its five most-watched moments from Tuesday night’s prime-time Olympics telecast. Four of them involve Shaun White.
And for good reason. Shaun White has offered TV the great Olympics narrative. Not because he's been dominant — though that helps — but because his story has changed as he's been dominant. In Torino he was the upstart, the red-haired wild-man who dazzled with his devil-may-care flips and spins. In Vancouver he was the reigning champion who knew he should impress and didn't disappoint — even putting on a spectacular second run that was simply a display of skill, that was meaningless because he'd already won gold.
This time he was something else: the elder statesman, the one who was there to claim what was his. His dominance was equally expected, but the way he would come by it was different, more professional. more refined. His hair was shorter and brushed (sort of). He was not devil may care — in fact, he was supremely mature, doing less so he could do it well.
And with all that, he failed to medal. He finished in fourth, the Olympics' ultimate heartbreak.
Now the White drama ends, his time in Sochi ends, just after that time-honored Olympic ritual, that of a "Today" show appearance. In Olympics storytelling, though, the book is never closed. There's just a new chapter waiting to be written. There's always a sequel. Even if.
Note: This is part of an ongoing series documenting the Sochi Olympics from a TV perspective. Every morning of the Games, we’ll look at a key moment from the previous day that NBC captured, elevated, honored, bungled or otherwise reported in a notable way, as only the most televised event on the planet can be covered.