Snowboard slopestyle made a rowdy debut at the Olympics, causing controversy for nearly a week and leaving many athletes wondering about the future of the sport at the Games.
First, problems with the course led to some high-profile injuries and the withdrawal of U.S. superstar Shaun White over safety concerns. Then, Canadians Max Parrot and Sébastien Toutant caused a stir with comments critical of White on Twitter. And throughout the event, there were concerns about judging.
To the average spectator, judging a sport in which a rider flies down a mountain at top speed and goes over three rails and three jumps doing flips and spins along the way seems an impossible task. But it is the job of six judges to assess each rider's style and technical ability. The question at Sochi was which took precedence: style or substance. Or something else.
The scoring at Sochi left many riders, commentators and snowboarding faithful perplexed.
Take the gold medal run of American Sage Kostenburg, who rarely wins on the world snowboarding tour. Technically, it was fairly straight-forward and included no challenging flips. Instead, Kostenburg threw in a move of his own creation, a series of grabs of his board called the "Holy Crail." He invented it only a couple of weeks ago, but it seemed to impress the judges. By contrast, Canada's Mark McMorris, a multiple X Games champion, did two triple corks, or spins, and came third.
"Every event I've ever done, if you're doing triple corks, you're on the podium if everything else is really good," McMorris said after the event. "And I thought, 'Okay, perfect, I'll do two triple corks.' What can you do? I was really glad with the way I rode. I guess two triple corks weren't the hammer today, it was something else. It's hard to wrap your head around what they really wanted to see."
Parrot said one of the problems is the difference between the Olympics, which are run by the International Ski Federation, or FIS, and the World Snowboard Tour, on which most of the riders compete. During the tour, he said, riders meet regularly with judges to get a sense of what they are looking for and how each event will be judged. FIS judges have only technical meetings with team staff. And few riders at the Olympics attend many FIS-sanctioned events, meaning they had no idea what to expect in Sochi.
As a result, Parrot said, the riders had no idea what the judges wanted at Sochi or where to make adjustments. "All the 12 riders [in Saturday's final] don't know how the judges were scoring," said Parrot, also an X Games gold medalist, who finished fifth in Sochi despite doing a more complicated version of a trick Kostenburg did, a triple-cork 1620, which involved three flips. "The judges don't know how hard it is. I think it would be good if they talked more with the riders to see which trick is more difficult."
He was not alone in voicing concern. Snowboarders around the world expressed dismay at the final result, and even Kostenburg acknowledged the competition could easily have been judged differently. "I think it could have gone anyone's way today," he said after the race.
There is some concern that if riders know what the judges want, they will tailor their runs accordingly, making for a dull series of similar trips down the hill. But others, including Parrot, believe there is enough latitude on the World Tour that it works better than what happened at Sochi.
Canadian head coach Leo Addington said he expects changes will be made for the next Olympics.
"The judging is evolving as the sport is evolving," he said on Sunday. "And I'm sure now that we have an international stage at the Olympics with slopestyle that there's going to be a lot of work getting the snowboarders, the riders, and the judges working a lot more together in the future for sure."
He added that the best option would be for FIS and the World Tour to agree on one system. "It would be great to have one system. That would be a lot more understandable for the riders, the coaches and the judges themselves."