Lest Ye Be Judged

Judging is arguably the toughest job in competitive snowboarding—as the controversies of the last Olympics proved. But how and why are such decisions made?

Words: Tristan Kennedy

It took fewer than five seconds for Gaz Vogan to realise there’d been a horrible mistake. Along with his fellow snowboard judges, Vogan had just submitted his scores for Max Parrot’s second run in the Olympic men’s slopestyle final – resulting in a combined total of 90.96, enough to put the Canadian rider in first place. “Then, literally two seconds later, we saw the same replay that the whole world saw,” says Vogan. “We were like, ‘Shit, shit, shit.’”

“In a so-called ‘free sport’, the idea of ranking one rider above another has always felt a bit awkward”

The replay angle in question clearly showed that Parrot had grabbed his knee, not his board – an execution error almost on a par with a fall. But there’s no VAR, TMO or Hawkeye in competitive snowboarding. Unlike football, rugby or tennis, there’s no mechanism for reviewing or retracting a decision after it’s been submitted to the Olympic Broadcast Service (OBS) for transmission. The judges were told that there was nothing that could be done. “I remember turning to Beggsy,” Vogan says, referring his fellow judge, Adam Begg of Australia, “and saying: ‘Shit is about to hit the fan.’”

Vogan was not wrong. On the BBC, NBC, and the other networks beaming the contest into millions of homes, the opprobrium was almost instant. Ed Leigh’s remark to Tim Warwood – “We can’t shy away from this Tim, there is a glaring judging error putting Max Parrot in gold” – was one of the more measured responses. And by the time Vogan, Begg, and their colleagues stepped out of the judging booth and switched them on, their phones were on fire.

“It’s amazing to me that some people would go and search out emails, or personal telephone numbers, just to send shit to the judges,” head judge Iztok Sumatic told Whitelines in an exclusive interview after the event, “but they did”. On Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, the pile-on continued. The fact that the rider who finished second, Su Yiming, was Chinese, meant the contest quickly went viral on Weibo too, where ‘patriotic’ users poured petrol on the flames. Sumatic’s explanation – that the issue lay largely with the TV feed, and the pressure put on judges to submit scores to the OBS’ schedule – was widely reported, including in The New York Times, The South China Morning Post and elsewhere. But that didn’t stop the judges getting death threats.

Men’s Slopestyle Podium, Beijing. Photo: Clavin.

Six months later, the vehemence of the global reaction – or overreaction – to a judgement made in good faith still surprises Sumatic. But in many ways, the internet-amplified shitstorm which he, Vogan and the others found themselves at the centre of, is merely the most extreme example of a problem that has plagued competitive snowboarding since the start: snowboarders have never really been comfortable with the idea of being judged.

As a young grom, one of my earliest memories of competitive snowboarding was reading an Onboard article about the Air & Style in 2000. Romain de Marchi – arguably the most talented rider in the world at the time, but something of an enfant terrible – scrawled ‘Don’t Judge Me’ on his bib. Then he dropped in and jibbed the brand new Audi that the sponsors had ill-advisedly left on the table top, scratching the shit out of what was supposed to be the first prize. I thought it was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard.

Beijing. Photo: Clavin.

In a so-called ‘free sport’ that’s all about self-expression, and where style – by definition a subjective concept – is considered paramount, the idea of ranking one rider above another has always felt a bit awkward. On the biggest stage of all, there’s a long-held suspicion that style gets sidelined when it comes to awarding silverware, dating back to the decision ahead of Nagano ‘98 to let the Federation International du Ski (FIS) control the Olympic qualification process. But the problems aren’t restricted to the five-ringed circus. In the modern era, when mind-boggling combos like back-to-back 1620s are the norm, it’s hard to remember a contest where the Instagram comments haven’t been dominated by people called @SnoBro86 or @Rider_duuude saying they’d “rather see a floaty backside 180”, or “it’s not as cool as a boned-out method.”

“The most prominent example of letting the viewing public judge a contest ended in one of the greatest miscarriages of justice ever seen on a snowboard”

Even if such sentiments are often poorly expressed, they are widely shared. Yet it’s worth remembering that the most prominent example of letting the viewing public judge a contest ended in one of the greatest miscarriages of justice ever seen on a snowboard. In 2009, the organisers of X Games, in all their infinite wisdom, decided the winner of the big air contest would be decided by text vote. The upshot? Travis Rice’s sketchy backside rodeo 10, complete with a revert on the landing, beat the edge-perfect switch backside 12 thrown by a young, relatively unknown Norwegian rider, named Torstein Horgmo. In the aftermath, even Travis himself told the cameras “we know how it should have gone.”

The misawarding of that medal was due in part to a lack of expertise among the viewers. Travis’ trick involved going upside down, which always looks harder to the untrained eye. But it’s also true that the 78 percent to 22 percent margin he won by was undoubtedly influenced by name recognition – American viewers knew who Travis was.

Historically, this had always been one of the biggest issues with snowboard judging, according to Todd Richards, the halfpipe and slopestyle legend turned NBC commentator. “It used to be that big names got big scores,” he says. “It was really hard for an unknown to come up, unless they had an obviously stellar performance. There wasn’t really a criteria to judge to, it was just like, ‘Ah, that kinda feels like it won.’”

Max Parrot, Beijing. Photo: Clavin.

Despite his name recognition now, Richards says he struggled with the system as a competitor. “At the beginning of my career I was a perpetual fourth placer,” he says. Once he’d proved to the judges that he could win, however, he remembers earning podium places more regularly – even though his runs hadn’t necessarily changed.

If such an impression-based system seems unfair, the solution came from an unlikely source. Richards is not necessarily a fan of FIS, but as he points out, “It was FIS [who] brought in a regimented, categorical way to do scoring.” The new system allowed lesser-known riders like Gian Simmen, winner of the first halfpipe gold medal at Nagano ‘98, to break through more regularly. But it wasn’t without issues.

“Romain de Marchi scrawled ‘Don’t Judge Me’ on his bib. Then he dropped in and jibbed the brand new Audi that the sponsors had ill-advisedly left on the table top”

The categories, which included ‘technical merit’ and a separate score for rotations and standard airs, were ill-defined. Crucially, there was no mark given for execution – the criteria which most closely equates with ‘style points’ in today’s contests. This meant that, as long as they both landed, two people who’d performed the same trick had to be awarded more or less the same mark. “That was stupid,” says Richards, “because it was like, ‘yeah OK, that guy did the trick, but it looked like hot garbage.’” Perhaps worst of all, riders at those early FIS comps, including the Nagano Games, were awarded a ranking based on the combined points of two runs, as opposed to a ‘best run counts’ system. “That stunted the progression of snowboarding,” says Richards, “because no-one was trying anything new – everyone was just figuring out a run that they could do in their sleep.”

It’s not surprising that in the two decades since, as scoring systems have been refined and tweaked, the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way. These days, halfpipe, slopestyle, and big air contests are marked on overall impression. These impressions are formed on the basis of five supposedly ‘objective’ criteria – difficulty, amplitude, variety, execution, and progression, best remembered by the acronym DAVE P – and the scores of the highest and lowest judges are always discounted, to ensure that extreme outliers don’t skew the averages. But even when applied as designed, this system is still more than capable of causing controversy.

Heikki Sorsa

Exhibit A, your honour: At the Beijing Games, Ayumu Hirano landed his much-hyped triple cork, and managed – for the first time ever in the history of snowboarding – to link the trick into a complete halfpipe run. When the judges put him in second spot, behind Scotty James of Australia, commentators (including most of snowboarding Twitter and, memorably, Todd Richards on NBC) lost their shit. The judges, Richards told his audience, had totally “grenaded all credibility”.

And yet for all the flak that ranking attracted, those closest to the decision saw the system working as designed. “It was just a split panel,” remembers Gaz Vogan, who wasn’t one of the scoring judges for the contest, but was sitting in the booth inputting scores. There was no doubt that Hirano’s run was more technical in terms of tricks performed, but there were some executional errors. After landing his paradigm-shifting trick, he had scrubbed a bit of speed, and lost a lot of amplitude. James’ run, by contrast, was put down flawlessly; when the highest and lowest scores were eliminated, the average marginally favoured the Australian.

“If everyone agrees that Kaishu’s method was sick, shouldn’t we be encouraging more of the same?”

Thankfully, Hirano responded to that decision by going back to the top and throwing the exact same run more cleanly, winning the gold medal and giving the historic contest the ending everyone craved. But in a press conference the following day, he suggested that the move towards judging based on subjective overall impressions had gone too far. “We are in an era where we should [build] a new system that can measure everything,” he said. “In the world of competition, there should be a way to measure height and grabs [numerically]. Athletes are taking risks so we should be evaluated and judged more clearly.”

Like a controversial precedent making it all the way to the Supreme Court, James vs. Hirano continues to provoke passionate debate. Six months on, Richards stands by his initial verdict, saying “I can confidently say [Hirano] was grossly underscored.” Meanwhile Ed Leigh, his counterpart on the BBC, has dedicated a lengthy article in Slush magazine to explaining why he thought the judges got it right.

But if the technical ins and outs of that score continue to divide experts, there’s one thing that everyone who watched that final agrees on: the coolest trick of the day was done by Hirano’s younger brother, Kaishu. Barrelling into the first hit in a low crouch, the younger Hirano boosted 24 and a half feet above the coping – more than 46 feet above the flat bottom – and boned out a perfect backside air, setting a world record in the process.

Chloe Kim, Beijing. Photo: Clavin.

Ayumu might have won the contest, but it was the younger Hirano who walked away with universal admiration from snowboarders and casual viewers alike. Compared to the triple corks and switch back 12s, Kaishu’s trick felt almost relatable. Most of us mere mortals have at least tried a method, even if we can never hope to match him for style or amplitude. Despite this, Kaishu’s score, a 75.50, put him nowhere near the podium. Which begs the question: are the debates about how to score difficult spins – about execution vs. technicality, or subjectivity vs. objectivity – missing the larger point? If everyone agrees that this method was sick, shouldn’t we be encouraging more of the same?

“The idea that Olympic judges might get paid little more than their expenses seems shocking”

Interestingly, FIS – still accused by some of being the ‘enemy’ of style in snowboarding – used to insist on exactly that. Their old halfpipe scoring system mandated at least one straight air per run, a rule which they justified specifically because it kept the sport relatable. It was the X Games who scrapped the requirement first, opening the floodgates to today’s top-to-bottom spin-fests. FIS only followed suit after the 2014 Olympics. But the impetus for that change came from riders themselves; in the run up to the 2010 Games, Kevin Pearce was on record complaining that the rule stymied their self-expression. Iztok Sumatic, who has been judging long enough to remember the discussions, recalls that “it was the freedom thing,” which led to FIS changing the rules for halfpipe contests. “Riders didn’t want to be restricted.”

In slopestyle, course design can also be used to nudge riders in a particular direction. “A lot of it comes down to the way the courses are built,” says Gaz Vogan. “Laax is a really good example. The last section is often a little bit weird – it’s sometimes physically not possible to go past a nine. If more of the courses were built like that, it would restrict it without being ‘restrictive’ – without there being a rule present.”

“If you get a single call wrong, you have to deal with death threats”

Iztok Sumatic says he’d love to see a combination of both rule changes and creative courses being brought to bear. He points out that with the introduction of the Knuckle Huck contests at the X Games (where he’s also served as a judge), knuckle tricks have developed into a discipline of their own, arguably distinct enough from rail and kicker tricks to merit their own features in a slopestyle course at some point in the near future.

Similarly, he says, “We have this whole new family of tricks with stalled spins – bring backs, whatever you want to call them,” which he’d like to see included. “That’s a whole new path of progression outside of just adding another 180 to spins.” An ideal contest, he suggests, might involve “one kicker where you just go nuts, do a huge spin, then another that’s just a knuckle, then one where you have to do a stalled spin or get points for your tweak or something.”

“Personally, I would love to see it go that way,” he says. “But that’s just my opinion.”

Tess Coady, Beijing. Photo: Clavin.

On the face of it, the idea that the opinion of the head judge at the Olympics might just be an opinion seems ludicrous. As Sumatic knows better than anyone, the verdicts he and his team hand down can have huge consequences – not just on individual snowboarders’ careers and lives, but on the future direction of the sport as a whole. Reward a particular kind of trick, and it stands to reason that an entire generation of groms will start concentrating their efforts in that direction.

Exhibit B your honour: The rapid rise of technical rail riding over the course of the past 20 years. They might have originally been inspired by street riding, but there’s no doubt that rail modules in slopestyle courses have helped push snowboarding forward, both within the contest arena, and in street parts.

Beijing. Photo: Clavin.

Despite the importance of judges’ decisions, which can, as Richards points out, “literally affect kids for the rest of their lives,” judges themselves remain massively undervalued. “X Games pays a decent wage,” says Iztok Sumatic, “but the FIS salary, even for the Olympics, is really very small.” Gaz Vogan, meanwhile, tells Whitelines: “I get paid more to judge the British University Championships in Milton Keynes than I do for the Olympics.”

Given the weight of responsibility put on judges, and the amount of money riding on their decisions, the idea that they might get paid little more than their expenses seems shocking. At the moment, judges are, by definition, part-time employees. But if you want people who’ll give the gig the care and attention it deserves, Richards argues, “they need to be paid – and paid well.”

“‘We have a duty to keep this shit from turning into frickin’ rollerblading,’ says Todd Richards”

“Judging is such a thankless job,” he explains. At its best, if you get all your calls ‘right’ (in the court of public opinion) you can expect the riders to take all the credit. If you get a single call wrong, however, as the most recent Olympics proved, you have to deal not only with shitty pay and working conditions, but the added delight of death threats.

And although they might seem all-powerful, at the end of the day, a judge’s job is to apply the law, not to write it. As Sumatic puts it, “we can only judge to the criteria we’re given.” Sure, there’s some room for interpretation, but only within certain parameters. Judges, whatever Twitter might think, don’t make the rules.

Which begs the question (like one of those spacemen-shooting-spacemen memes): who really does? And perhaps more importantly, who should?

Hailey Langland, Beijing. Photo: Clavin.

Currently, within the FIS system, any proposed rule change (for example, a bid to reintroduce the mandatory straight air in halfpipe runs) must be proposed by an official representative of a National Organising Committee. “That is then taken up by the judges working group, and ultimately, considered by the FIS council,” explains Sumatic. The FIS Council – a collection of suits drawn from across the skiing disciplines – does include athletes. But the current representatives for snowboarding are Chinese halfpipe rider Liu Jaiyu, and the slalom racer Alexander Payer – nobody’s idea of guardians of the core.

If that system seems unnecessarily complex, it’s at least more democratic and accountable than the X Games judging criteria, which is decided solely by appointees of ESPN. Majority-owned by Disney, the US media conglomerate is widely suspected of prioritising made-for-TV moments and headline-grabbing winners over genuine achievement. How else to explain decisions like awarding Shaun White a perfect 100 score, despite executional errors; giving Torstein Horgmo a Big Air gold medal for the world’s first competition triple cork, despite a blatant hand drag; or, indeed, letting the public text vote decide that 2013 Big Air final between Torstein and Travis?

In place of these less-than-ideal arbitrators (or simply traitors, when it comes to safeguarding the spirit of snowboarding) Todd Richards proposes an elected ‘Council of Elders’, made up of people with the long-term interests of the sport at heart. “We need gatekeepers to keep this shit on the track,” he says. Individual rider opinions should be taken into account, Richards suggests, but as the now debatable decision to get rid of mandatory straight airs in halfpipe shows, they’re not the only thing that matters. “The average young pro snowboarder, 21 or 22, is so stoned, they’re so disengaged, they just wanna film instagram videos and do double corks,” says Richards. “They think it’s not cool to like FIS, but you know what? If you wanna compete, you gotta play by their rules.”

“Unlike football, rugby or tennis, there’s no mechanism for reviewing a decision after it’s been submitted to the Olympic Broadcast Service”

He highlights the example of sports like tennis, where groups made up of players and their elected representatives wield real power – including, in the case of the Women’s Tennis Association, the ability to withdraw completely from a country like China if it doesn’t release one of its members. “You know snowboarding is more valuable to the Olympics than the Olympics is to snowboarding,” Richards says. “We need to make use of that.”

Iztok Sumatic agrees. “What I would like to see is more people from the snowboarding world getting involved in deciding judging criteria – athletes, coaches, ex-pros, even media. There should be consultations. Like, how do you wanna judge it? What is most important?”

For such a system to work, however, it will require organisation and engagement with FIS – love it or loathe it – and with its governing structures. This engagement can’t be left just to those currently offering their expertise as judges, or to the riders who are directly affected by their decisions. It needs to come from everyone with an interest in the future of snowboarding, and anyone who cares about the sport they love being showcased in the best possible way, on the biggest stage of all.

Shaun White, Beijing. Photo: Clavin.

“You have all these legends of the sport in Europe, in Japan, in the US and everywhere, and we have [a duty] to keep this shit from turning into frickin’ rollerblading,” says Todd Richards. “That’s my goal in life.”

Alternatively, we could ignore the issue and cloak ourselves in the comfort blanket of judge-bashing – safe in the knowledge that when a future group of underpaid, underappreciated officials are forced to make a really difficult decision in four years time, we can anonymously call them cunts on Twitter. After all, if there’s one thing all snowboarders love, it’s judging a judge.


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