KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Don’t know how to judge snowboard slopestyle? Don’t worry. The riders don’t know, either.
Hell, the judges might not even know themselves.
It could have been a spectacular Olympic debut for the sport, with sunshine, blue sky, white powder, craggy mountains, awesome athletes and cheering fans bopping to the pop music at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on Saturday. It could have been an outstanding start to the Sochi Games for Canada, with three riders capable of sweeping the podium – Mark McMorris, Max Parrot and Sebastien Toutant.
McMorris made it. He won bronze, Canada’s first medal of the Olympics. And that is a great story because of where he came from (the flat lands of Saskatchewan), who he is (the biggest name in the sport) and what he has been through (a broken rib suffered Jan. 25).
But McMorris could have won gold, instead of the United States’ Sage Kotsenburg, or silver, instead of Norway’s Stale Sandbech. Or he could have been bumped off the podium altogether by Parrot. It all depended on the judging, and you couldn’t depend on the judging at all.
Who made the best run Saturday?
“According to the judges, Sage,” said Canada coach Leo Addington, a former judge himself, being diplomatic. “It’s so tough to tell. Their criteria are vast, and they have their ideas. It’s a judged sport, and that’s what we have to accept.”
In snowboard slopestyle, the riders drop into an obstacle course – first rails and terrain features, then three jumps increasing in size. The judges give them a score up to 100 based on “overall impression.” Each rider takes two runs; his best score counts.
On tour, the riders interact with the judges and learn their criteria. But at the Olympics, the International Ski Federation runs the show. The judges meet with managers and coaches, who relay information to the riders.
“I don’t know even know their names,” Parrot said. “We’re not really knowing what’s going on with the judges. We don’t know how they score us. We don’t know what they’re looking for on the slope.”
How can you win when you don’t know what you need to do to win? How can you introduce a new Olympic sport like this?
McMorris was not among the first eight qualifiers Thursday and was upset with the judges’ scoring. He struggled on his first semifinal run Saturday and needed to nail his second run to be among the next four to make the final. Then he struggled on his first final run and needed to nail his second run to make the podium.
He nailed it. Just not quite like some thought.
“I thought I’d for sure be in the 90s – close to first, if not first,” he said.
McMorris received an 88.75. He was third.
“I think it deserves to be first or second for sure,” Parrot said.
Parrot, as the top qualifier, was the last rider to go in the final. It should have been a big advantage. Parrot knew the score he needed; he should have known how to get it.
Yet he had no idea. As he stood atop the hill, he figured he had to do something big. So he tried a 1620 – 4 1/2 spins – on his last jump. He had done it at the X Games and won gold. He hadn’t done it here, not even in practice.
“Did it,” Parrot said. “Landed it.”
McMorris figured Parrot had taken him out of the top three. McMorris said he thought: “Hey, I’m done. I’m not on the podium anymore.” He was about to walk off when someone told him: “Wait, you don’t know.” McMorris thought: “I’m pretty sure I know.”
Parrot was pretty sure he knew, too.
“When I finished my run, I thought I was going to be on the podium,” Parrot said.
But neither knew.
“The judging,” McMorris said, his voice trailing off for a second, “you never know with these guys over here.”
Parrot received an 87.25. He was fifth.
“Yeah, I was really stoked on my run, and I thought it would be higher than this,” Parrot said. Even after the results were official, he thought he had finished higher. “Yeah,” he said, “I was disappointed for sure to get fourth.”
Toutant finished ninth with a high score of 58.50.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t get gold for Canada,” Parrot said. “We had the chance to do the sweep podium, and it didn’t happen. But we still have one guy on the podium, so I guess it’s better than nothing.”
The consolation is this: McMorris grew up in Regina. The closest thing he had to mountains were a couple of valleys. The biggest local hill was 89 metres (292 feet). But he started skateboarding when he was four years old, and he fell in love with snowboarding because he family took yearly trips to Lake Louise, Alta. He became obsessed with it. He became a huge star. He became one of the first three Olympic medalists in the sport. “I’m on an Olympic podium,” he said, “and I’m from Saskatchewan.”
McMorris made the podium just two weeks after breaking his 11th rib, in his back. Muscle seized around it and acted as a cast, and he tried to loosen it up with help from the medical and training staffs. He rehabbed in the water. When he could hit the gym, he hit it hard. Was it painful? “Every time I’d hit that last jump,” he said, “it was.” He didn’t let it show. “He doesn’t let anything faze him, and he certainly wasn’t going to let anything like that take his dream away of being here and being on the podium,” said Adam Burwell, his coach.
It was impressive he was able to compete physically and stay together mentally -- and not just because of the judging issues. His reputation carried the highest expectations, and he was only 20 years old at his first Olympics. He said he had never felt such pressure before. “He’s got the weight of the world, the weight of Canada on him, and he delivered,” Burwell said.
"Yeah, I would have loved to be in the gold medal position, but with what I’ve been through in the last two weeks, just standing on the podium in general feels like a gold medal to me," McMorris said. "It’s just a huge, huge sigh of relief right now."
He looked happy, not angry.
“A lot of people are talking about my score being low throughout the whole week," McMorris said, emphasizing "the whole week." "But that’s the least of my worries. You know what? I was just trying to ride the way I was going to ride, and that’s go big, land clean, do technical tricks. You’ve got to be happy with the way you rode, and then it’s up to the judges. You can’t do anything about it at that point.”