Most Australians know the name Scotty James, but perhaps significantly fewer know the name Ayumu Hirano.
Normally at an Olympics, the three-time gold medallist, in this instance American Shaun White, would stand as the greatest obstacle impeding any given challenger’s path to gold. But for Scotty James, the unassuming Japanese snowboarder stands as his greatest threat and biggest rival.
In January of this year, James beat out Hirano for X-Games gold in Aspen, serving as a prequel to Beijing’s Olympic Games.
However, there is nothing new about this sporting rivalry. Hirano is a two-time Olympic silver medallist, outdoing James in PyeongChang in 2018 who earned bronze, while White claimed his third gold. At X-Games that same year, Hirano bested Scotty’s stellar score of 98 by one point, scoring an almost perfect 99 to win.
In Aspen last month, the 23-year-old was on the precipice of once again beating out our Australian snowboarding star with his final run – landing the first triple cork ever seen at an X-Games before falling on his next trick and spoiling the run.
Remember that term – triple cork – it’s the move which almost robbed James of an X-Games gold and may well prevent him from earning gold in Friday’s halfpipe final in Beijing.
Three competitors in Beijing have pulled off a triple cork in competition or in practice, all are Japanese and all are significant medal threats: Ayumu Hirano, Ruka Hirano (no relation) and Yuto Totsuka. Both Totsuka and American Shaun White were notable absences at X-Games in Aspen.
This begs the question; Can Scotty pull off a triple cork of his own? The answer? We don’t know. There have been murmurs that James is working on something special for Olympic competition but his six-foot frame makes any form of triple difficult.
James’ X-Games gold was his first major contest win in two years, after taking leave from competition following defeat at the Aspen World Championships in March 2021.
In that time, Japan’s trio has up-skilled extensively, particularly Ayumu Hirano, who has landed three triple corks in competitive settings, however, has never nailed the rest of the run. James’ recent victory was a big statement to the rest of the field, but has he got enough up his sleeve if someone lands a triple cork in a flawless run?
Scotty’s style has always been technically sound; big airs, clean tricks and tactical runs. But the Olympics is a time for the miraculous and James will need something special if he is to overcome Japan’s trio and the ever-present Shaun White.
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In the wake of Wednesday’s Olympic halfpipe qualifying session, there is plenty of positives for James to take away. Namely, he qualified for the final. Secondly, he qualified ahead of Ruka Hirano, Tokastu and White. Unfortunately, he sits behind Ayumu Hirano, who beat Scotty’s 91.25 with a 93.25 on his second run.
Ruka Hirano rounded out the top three with a score of 87.00, Pyeung Chang gold medallist, Shaun White, finished in fourth and Australian Olympic debutant, Valentino Guseli, impressed the field with a fifth-place finish, one spot ahead of Yuto Totsuka in sixth.
A fourth Japanese competitor and a third Hirano also qualified for the 12-man final, Ayumu’s younger brother, Kaishu, who finished ninth.
Despite losing out to his main competition in qualifying, as we saw at X-Games, second behind Ayumu Hirano is not a bad place to finish qualifying. It means Scotty will go down the halfpipe ahead of Ayumu in the final, giving the Australian a chance to heap on the pressure and, to use a cricketing term, get some “runs on the board”.
Scotty said he was “over the moon” after qualifying and he has every right to be. But for the 27-year-old, with so much good, young competition around him, the four-time Olympian will surely be feeling the heat.
He may never have as good a chance at winning Olympic gold again and he has a big decision to make: Go for the triple cork or stick to his guns? Or perhaps Scotty has an even bigger surprise in store?
The final is set to get underway on February 11 at 12:30 AEDT.
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