KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – In eight words, the best slopestyle snowboarder in the world perfectly encapsulated the problem with his sport. Mark McMorris, a fresh-faced 20-year-old Canadian, the sort of kid who says "heck" without any irony, wore a look somewhere between perturbed and angry. In the aftermath of dubious scoring in the slopestyle qualifying round that left him with an uphill climb to the medal stand, he tried to shrug off his disappointment.
"It's a judged sport," he said. "What can you do?"
Up here at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, almost every sport falls under the purview of judges, a group of people tasked with impartiality despite inherent biases. In slopestyle's case, the judging criteria is particularly ridiculous. Slopestyle runs are scored 1 to 100 based on "overall impression." It is nebulous by design, giving judges the sort of rope with which they hang themselves far too often.
Such is the case in any judged sport, really, and as slopestyle hits the Olympic program for the first time this year, the lingering beefs of riders fatigued by judging snafus are finding their largest platform yet. McMorris wasn't the only one complaining. American Sage Kotsenburg, who prides himself on throwing unique tricks, found himself in the same place as McMorris: without an automatic invitation to Saturday's finals despite the sort of run that could have warranted as much.
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The riders' misgivings center around the issue that drives almost all of their concerns: They're run by a bunch of skiers. When the International Olympic Committee left snowboarding under the International Ski Federation's purview, it took a sport that evolved because of boredom with skiing and handed it back to those who held it in the lowest regard. While the current judges do have experience with the sport, almost none have competed professionally, and their scores tend to reflect a behind-the-times nonchalance that peeves competitors today. That alone is enough for any sane-minded person to raise an eyebrow, but then the IOC did award Sochi the Olympics, so par for the course.
Still, with snowboarding playing as large a part here as it now does, the sport demands a complete overhaul to the system that employs a head judge who serves as grand poobah to the six-judge panel that levies the scores. The judges are allowed to consult with one another. The head judge will snoop in on the scores and suggest changes. It is a system ripe for corruption, which, come to think of it, does dovetail rather well with the Olympic standard.
Think about being one of the six judges. Nobody wants to award a score drastically different than the rest, so the system encourages groupthink. Moreover, if such outliers do exist, the head judge often will nudge the judge more toward the rest of the group, or toward his or her own personal opinion, which creates the sort of fear nobody needs: that disagreeing with the boss will have deep repercussions. Already judging is rife enough with confirmation and recency biases that its myriad issues need no additional complications, let alone countless ones.
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While McMorris and Kotsenburg's complaints differed – McMorris thought judges undersold his solid run and Kotsenburg questioned why they're so biased against the sorts of stylistic runs in which he specializes – both echoed the cries of others who believe judging can, and should, be better.
The most obvious fix: scrap the judge-by-committee lunacy and force judges to think for themselves without some seigneur peering over their shoulders ready to whap 'em on the wrist. And right alongside that, ensure, above all, the judges are qualified by selecting those who know the sport best: former high-level snowboarders with the knowledge necessary to translate the complicated language of elite snowboarding.
The greatest worry among competition snowboarders is simple: It's turning into figure skating, with a routine that is honed down to the very last degree of spinning. Kotsenburg disdains the spin-to-win ethos and craves the nuance of a Japan air, a trick he threw twice Thursday that involved a beautiful grab-and-tweak maneuvering of his board. He finished with an 86.5, with one judge appreciating his effort with a 93 and the rest, including a U.S. judge who gave him an 83, scoffing at it.
"We're not robots," Kotsenburg said. "They like to see robotic tricks, though."
McMorris, with his finely honed triple-flip jumps, could fall into that category. Even Kotsenburg would acknowledge a well-landed triple deserves a high score so long as the rest of the run was clean. McMorris' was, and when 89.25 flashed on the videoboard, the pain from riding with a broken rib ceded to that of feeling wronged.
"It sucks," McMorris said. "It sucks when you fall, but to land a really good run that you're really proud of with one of the only legitimate triple corks of the day and not even come close. I was in seventh, I think? That's pretty ridiculous."
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It was, and because he wasn't among the top four in his heat, he will face 20 other riders in the semifinals Saturday for the final four spots in the 12-man final. Between now and then, perhaps McMorris will change up his run to better fit what the eight finalists chosen Thursday showed. Kotsenburg has no such plans.
"I'd rather not conform to making the judges happy," Kotsenburg said.
Nor should he. Judged sports inspire enough problems as is. For the IOC to double down and FIS to play its accomplice in allowing this process to continue unabated is at best willful ignorance and at worst inviting fraudulence.
It's too late to change the system now. And it's too bad. For its introduction to the Olympic world, slopestyle deserved far better.
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