You’d think the introduction of a new Olympic sport involving aerial jumps, flips, grabs and grinds would warrant one of the most complex judging criteria out there.
But you would be wrong.
The new Olympic sport of “slopestyle” is a snowboarding event in which athletes snowboard down a course, performing tricks off ramps, boxes and jumps. It’s scored for style and creativity, and judges rank riders based on “overall impression.”
“Overall impression makes judges look at a run from top to bottom and evaluate it out of a score of 100,” says Sandy Macdonald, a judge educator with the international judges commission, which specializes in training snowboard, free skiing and moto-x judges.
To determine an overall impression score, six judges take four criteria into consideration: difficulty, amplitude, variety and execution. For Olympic events, judges will also consider a rider’s trick combinations, risk, progression and course use. The official score for each run is the average of the judges scores.
“In sports such as figure skating, the athlete will give you the routine and the judge must assign a value for every trick,” says Macdonald, a retired professional Canadian snowboarder. “In slopestyle we don’t do that, because we look at the subtle differences in the way riders perform tricks. It’s more free.”
The overall impression judging method is an industry standard, but more than a decade ago a competing system — which is perhaps more technical — made its debut: the snowboard live scoring system, or SLS.
Used mainly in professional competitions like the TTR World Snowboarding Tour, the SLS system allows riders to receive a score for each feature of their run. Two judges score each individual feature, and again their scores are averaged. Unlike the overall impression system, SLS allows riders to pinpoint exactly where they went wrong.
“We found overall impression didn’t provide enough information for spectators, riders and coaches, and we just wanted to advance the way we look at things,” says Macdonald.
Macdonald is nevertheless confident that the overall impression system is a good choice for slopestyle’s Olympic debut. She admits, however, that while the riders may know where their scores came from, Sochi spectators may not.
For Canadian snowboard judge Brandon Wong, judging is a subjective role, and overall impression or SLS are just tools to reach the same end — ranking athletes from best to worst.
“Not everyone will always be happy; there will be a difference of opinions on ranks,” says Wong, who will be the head judge for the slopestyle event at the 2014 winter games.
The Calgary-born judge says he has scored athletes using both judging systems, and remains impartial to either. He calls a slopestyle competition a success when media, athletes and parents don’t ask to speak with him after the podium spots are announced.
Regardless of the scoring system, the pressure will be on for Wong and his panel of judges come February. “Its always a pressure situation — these athletes are so good these days, it’s like splitting hairs between some of the ranks,” he says.
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