By Nick Mulvenney
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (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 his withdrawal.
White, the biggest name in the extreme sport, pulled out of the slopestyle on Wednesday to concentrate on his halfpipe title defense, citing safety concerns after jamming his hand in practice on the "intimidating" course earlier in the week.
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 posted what I have to say," he told reporters after finishing third in Thursday's first heat to book himself a place in the final.
"I deleted the tweet because some people took it the wrong way.
"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."
His mood was reflected by most of the riders on a brilliant sunny morning at the Rhosa Khutor Extreme Park, even if some were keen to point out the American would have had his work cut out to win gold.
"He's a good rider for sure in slopestyle but he's not the best," said Finn Peetu Piiroinen, who was second in the first heat. "He's the best rider in halfpipe, if he lands his jumps, but not in slopestyle."
As for safety, the competitors were largely happy with 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 also 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."
Piiroinen suggested the jumps might be a problem "for the girls" but would have liked to have been able to get even greater height from them.
"If we want to see more triples, you want to see more pop in it," he said. "I like the big jumps, that's what I was hoping for."
In practice on the course in its original state on Monday, Norwegian Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone in a crash which ruled the triple X Games Big Air gold medalist out of the Games.
There were no major injuries reported in the first two heats, although Australian Scotty James was left sore after a heavy fall on his first run.
"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," he said.
Toutant said danger was all just part and parcel of slopestyle snowboarding events and was confident White's absence would not damage the profile event.
"If you enter any slopestyle contest and think it's not going to be dangerous, you should find another sport," Toutant added.
"There's a lot of wow factor, I think a lot of people will be watching the slopestyle even if Shaun's not in it."
(Editing by Julian Linden)
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