By Jack Tarrant
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Pre-Olympics favorites including two-time gold medalist Shaun White qualified for the men’s snowboard halfpipe final in a high-scoring, high-flying contest on Tuesday.
American White, Australian Scotty James and Sochi silver medalist Ayumu Hirano of Japan set the pace, all scoring over 95 points and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in snowboarding’s biggest event at the Olympics.
White topped qualifying with his score of 98.50. James was second on 96.75 and Hirano third on 95.25.
All four American riders qualified, while only Taku Hiraoka missed out for the Japanese, who will have three representatives in the final.
With five riders scoring over 90 points, one could be forgiven for thinking the riders were performing at their maximum, yet the top three all told reporters after the event that there was more to come.
“Today I did not execute fully because it is qualification. My focus has always been on the final,” said Hirano.
Both White and Hirano laid down back-to-back double cork 1440s, whilst James, who was Australia’s flag bearer at Pyeongchang’s opening ceremony, has been focusing on his switch backside double cork 1260.
Earlier in the week, the Australian questioned recent judging, particularly in regard to perceptions of the two tricks and of White’s recent perfect 100.00 score achieved at the Snowmass Grand Prix.
James’ switch backside may contain less rotations than the 1440s favored by his rivals but the Australian’s trick is arguably more technical and he is the only man in history to throw one down in competition.
“What I was saying earlier in the week was trying to differentiate between the 1440s and my switch backside and what I thought of that,” James told reporters after qualifying.
“I have talked to the judges and I am trying to be more proactive as opposed to negative.”
When asked if a perfect score was needed to claim gold on Wednesday, James replied with a rueful smile.
“I am not big on the perfect scores but if they give one out to me I will take one on the chin.”
For White, who is chasing a record third Olympic snowboarding gold medal, qualifying was all about finishing first so that he gets the chance to send down the very last run in the final.
“I get my favourite spot, dropping in last. It is a really good luck spot so I am really lucky to have it.”
The final starts at 1000 local time (0100 GMT) on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)