Shaun White's halfpipe loss a big win for all his Sochi Winter Olympics competitors

In the past eight years, Shaun White and his shock of red hair like the fires of hell made snowboarding one of the coolest sports on the planet.

Shaun White's

So when he finished fourth in the men's halfpipe on Tuesday night, failing to win his third Olympic gold medal in the event, why did his fellow snowboarders celebrate like they'd won?

"Well, fourth was a gift, first of all," said his US teammate Danny Davis, who finished 10th. "You know it's good for snowboarding, man. The world knows now that there are other snowboarders besides Shaun. It's great, man, because there are a bunch of good riders in our sport and they deserve some credit, too."

There are three battles being fought on the slopes of Rosa Khutor at these Olympics: one is for medals, one is against the apparent shoddy nature of the halfpipe and slopestyle courses, and the other is for snowboarding's soul.

There is an uneasy struggle between snowboarding's slip into the mainstream as an Olympic sport and keeping its traditions as an alternative pursuit.

With an estimated net worth of $40 million, White is the poster boy for its commercialisation. "I always want to be more than just a snowboarder," said White after failing to medal behind winner Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland. "This is a big part of who I am, but it's not all of who I am."

The reaction of the crowd at the men's halfpipe final illuminated the importance of the sport to the Winter Olympics. Podladtchikov was born in Russia, grew up in Switzerland. He represented Russia at the Winter Olympics in 2006, but has represented the Swiss since gobbling up a scholarship in 2007.

When he put down a sizzling second run to clinch gold, the heaving Russian crowd didn't seem to care he had changed national allegiance. They just revelled in his aerial trickery, ooh-ing and aah-ing like they were wide-eyed Smurfs.

"It's hot, cool and it's f---ing mine," Podladtchikov said afterwards, putting a unique twist on the motto of the Sochi Games.

In recent years, the IOC has introduced modern, alternative sports to the summer and winter Games – and in some cases shed older ones – in order to capture a younger audience.

The sight of David Beckham with his young sons at the BMX finals at the London Olympics two years ago neatly summed up the IOC's thinking. Consequently, though, there is a fear among the purists that their sport is selling out.

Australian snowboarder Torah White told Fairfax Media last week: "I am here in an event run by the Olympic committee that just makes buckets and buckets of money and doesn't really give back. I'm torn in the middle."

As far as his peers are concerned, the only one making buckets and buckets of money is White. The Flying Tomato has become the Flying Dollar Sign. He is so wealthy and influential, he and his sponsors built a halfpipe in secret in Perisher in the lead-up to Sochi, just to practice on.

"I don't think tonight makes or breaks my career," White said in the wash-up of his fourth placing.

With the commercial pulling power in the US of NFL superstar Peyton Manning, you sense his career will be OK.

US teammate Greg Bretz has said White doesn't love snowboarding like others love snowboarding. Then snowboard filmmaker Chris Grenier branded him a "whore".

"I don't know Shaun White personally," Grenier told USA Today. "But he doesn't give a [expletive] about the snowboarding community. He's whored himself out where he has a scooter company and they sell Shaun White shoes at Walmart."

Some say it all comes down to the hair. His signature flowing, flames have been cut. His more the Sherminator than halfpipe shredder.

"When you're younger, you don't really think about it," White has said of furthering his brand. "You just have long, red hair and do your jumps and tricks. I may have lost a little bit of hair, but I'm still the same guy."

Who just came fourth. His contemporaries could not be happier, even if their place in the sport can be attributed largely to him.