The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games have drawn to a close. Just after the Mens snowboard Big air finals – where Billy Morgan won bronze medal and secured Great Britain its best ever Winter Olympic medal haul – we caught up with snowboard judge and Eurosport expert Gareth Vogan to learn a bit more about how judges operate and how events are judged – a process sometimes mysterious and confusing for viewers.
Can you tell us how you got into judging snowboard competitions?
So, four years ago I broke my back and wanted to stay involved with the sport but wasn’t at a good enough level to compete professionally. A friend of mine who ran university series events got me onto a lower level judging course, I really enjoyed it and I judged all the university competitions for that season. I also managed to be in Tignes where the Brits Championships were held so I emailed the organisers to see if I could shadow the judges and they offered to let me judge. From there I did an international clinic with the World Snowboard Federation and the year afterward it started to pick up more and more, with bigger and more high-profile events. Then in December 2017 I got an email through from FIS about the Laax Open saying I was on the Slopestyle panel. It was my first international competition, so that was a pretty rad feeling!
How was it to commentate the Olympics as the snowboard expert for Eurosport?
I thoroughly enjoyed it. Getting to voice my opinion was quite cool – I absolutely loved it. Ian Findlay is the lead commentator so introduces the riders, their ranking, results, where they’re from etc but as soon as they drop in I would take over and call the tricks, point out what’s good or bad about the run, why it might score higher or lower than someone else’s and highlight what the judges are looking for.
The level was very high at Pyeongchang both for men and women. Can you explain what the judges were looking for?
It was very progressive for sure, particularly for the women. Obviously the slopestyle was a wash out because of the weather but at the Big Air qualification there was a huge step up in difficulty level. I think the lowest spin we saw was a 720. It’s a huge thing for women’s snowboarding, with Anna Gasser throwing two different double 10’s, Jamie Anderson sending a really well-executed flat 10, and Zoi Sadowski-Synnott putting down a huge switch backside 900.
The judges are analysing the difficulty, execution (which includes style), amplitude, landing and variety of the tricks – as well as factors such as use of course and progression in the sport. But as soon as the slopestyle course design came out you could tell they would want to see people doing different things to stand out from the other riders, show individuality and creativity.
For the Slopestyle, judges are also looking for riders to show variety and use of course across all the lines, rather than just a staple three rails, three jumps. It shows riders’ adaptability to do kickers, transitions, rails and adapt their tricks accordingly. Part of the variety aspect of the score is the difference in spin directions and grabs as well. These are little factors that tend to play quite a big part in the judge’s mind.
In Sochi the triple cork was kind of coming in so people throwing two triple corks in a row were pushing the sport, but over these four years everyone kind of got used to the triple cork. Now, looking at the men and the way that the slopestyle course was laid out, it kind of emphasized the style element because the judges wanted to see what the riders could do differently with the course.
This is why Red Gerard (USA) came out on top because he was doing that hip over the rail into the double kink using the full length of the rail as well, and using the quarter pipe on the second kicker rather than just hitting a straight jump. Using these options is something the judges like to see because it shows the variety of a rider’s skill. That’s why a couple riders came up short, they just hit the rails as if it was a normal rails section whereas looking at the
Norwegians and the rest of the Americans, they were using creative lines almost with a skateboard-influenced style.
In half pipe however, amplitude is the name of the game. That’s the key reason why Shaun White got the Gold, because his amplitude was higher consistently throughout the run. His tricks were big, his landings on point and the difficulty level was right up there.
It’s important to remember that the ranking is more important than the score – the judges are ranking all the runs on the day. It’s all relative, the judges compare the riders run to that of the other rider’s in that competition.
The judges watch the practice to give them an idea of the level of riding and from what they’ve seen they’re able to breakdown a 100 points scale into what a hypothetical run will roughly score so when you actually see the runs you’re more prepared to deal with the criteria, how well was it executed, was it grabbed, was it landed, how big was it, and that’s how the ranks start to come out.
But creativity still has its place?
For sure, in the Big Air competition we saw Kyle Mack putting down the Japan tweak and the frontside 1440 bloody dracula, Billy Morgan went for the tailgrab and the double grab so it’s no longer a backside 14 mute fest as it was.
It almost goes back to Sochi when we saw Sage Kotsenburg do the Holy Crail grab and that kind of changed the way snowboarding was going, because Sage started doing these weird grabs and got rewarded for that creativity and that difference. Now that everyone has got the triple cork they have to change the way they do it and differentiate themselves.
That’s when the judging comes in, because whilst we’re not trying to influence the sport or the way it’s going, because the riders are trying to be rewarded by the judges – how the judges score tricks has an effect on what tricks the riders are trying to learn. But similarly, the judges rely on input from the riders about the difficulty level of tricks. Although style is subjective, so people’s opinions are always going to vary. But what matters at the end of the day is the judge’s opinions, because that’s where the scores – and therefore the rank – come from.
We get riders and coaches coming to the judging clinics, so they can understand how the judges operate and what criteria we are looking for. But something that people often don’t realize is that it’s not all about the difficulty of the tricks, there is a whole bunch of criteria to take into account.
Is there a minimum judging panel per event?
Big air and half pipe events had 6 judges at the Olympics. Each judge gives a score out of hundred for the entire run and they will drop the lowest and highest score and average the remaining for consistency and to prevent bias. So, in the end only four scores are averaged. The head judge makes sure the scores are not too close together. It is one of their key roles to make sure it doesn’t go to deadlock.
Slopestyle gets 8 to 9 judges on a panel. Each pair of judges has a zone to judge and they break the run into 2 features per zone. For the Olympics they had 3 zones, so you had 2 judges per zone and 3 judges doing the overall impression of the whole course. So you get 60% for the individual features and 40% for the overall impression. The overall judges look at the variety of the tricks during the run and the use of the course whereas the trick judges on the individual features just look at that feature they’re assigned to. It offers way more clarity, as the riders are able to breakdown their run and point out their weakest area. It also removes bias because not one judge has full control over the scores.
Your highlights for these Olympics?
Red Gerard’s medal in the slopestyle was awesome because he has such a nice style, used the course very well, and showed snowboarding for what snowboarding is rather than being a gymnastic routine.
And then the men’s half pipe was insane, because that pushed the standards a bit further forward. Any of the three at the top could have won that one, just little small errors pulled them down.
My final highlight is Billy’s thirds place, he put down two very nice triples. A top 10 would have been a good finish but bronze is awesome and it’s great for the British snowboard scene.
You can also follow Gareth on social media:
Images credit – Ski The Kingdom