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Judging at the Sochi Olympic slopestyle qualifiers yesterday left Mark McMorris and Sage Kotsenburg confused. Mark, coming around on the triple cork that left him in seventh place.  PHOTO: Chris Wellhausen

Questionable judging dogs Sochi Olympic slopestyle qualifiers

Mark McMorris stomped his backside triple cork during Olympic slopestyle qualifiers yesterday and rode towards the cameras at the bottom of the course to await his score. He looked confident that his run would crack the 90s and put him among the top four riders from his heat who would be fast-tracked to finals on Saturday. When an 89.25 flashed across the big screen, leaving him in seventh place, his expression quickly switched to confusion.

“I landed one of the only legitimate triple corks of the day and I didn’t even come close—it’s pretty ridiculous,” Mark said. “I was bummed because I really had no thought in my mind that I wasn’t in there. It was a shock to the heart.”

When asked what he thought judges were rewarding Mark said, “To be honest, you’re going to have to ask them because I have no clue. I didn’t think my run was less technical than anybody else’s and it sure as heck wasn’t sketchy. It felt really solid and clean. “

Moments earlier Sage Kotsenburg had a similar experience as he waited for his second run score. He had just stepped up his jump line to include a super-tweaked backside double cork 1260 japan and the run was a clear improvement from his first where he only did a backside double cork 1080 on the last jump. Yet somehow he only scored an 81.50, a full five points less than his first run.

“I went way bigger,” Sage as he tried to understand why his score was so low. “I thought my rail section was way better too. But they [the judges] just weren’t down I guess.”

Sage added that he felt the judging was all over the place this season. “Sometimes they’re super down for the stuff and sometimes there not,” he said. “I don’t know, it’s crazy here. I don’t really know what they want to see. I need to re-evaluate, I guess.”

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Sage Kotsenburg, full-pull on his backside 1260 japan. PHOTO: Chris Wellhausen

So what do the judges want to see? As per the Overall Impression format used at Sochi, judges use eight criteria to rank riders including amplitude, difficulty, execution, variety, course use, progression, risk taking, and combinations. After looking at how well a rider met each of those criteria judges assign their score.

Head Olympic slopestyle and halfpipe judge Brandon Wong, who is a dedicated snowboarder, responded to questions about the judging saying, “Riding was at such a high level today. With the riders all throwing down, we have to break down all the little things to separate them—hand touches, instabilities, trick difficulty on the rails and jumps. We compare an entire run to another entire run. Comparatively the [second] heat was very close.” He also added that all the judges are actually snowboarders themselves, not skiers.

While most riders who landed 1440s qualified for finals, three of the four who did triple corks—Mark, Billy Morgan, and Clemens Schattschneider—didn’t make the cut. Clemens scored a 90 for his run at least, which also included a switch backside 900, one of the lowest spins of the day. But his run beat Mark’s so none of this really explains how Mark and Sage ranked so low. Maybe the judges just weren’t scoring triple corks as high as they normally do. But that doesn’t add up either because Max Parrot posted the top score of the day with his triple cork. Max did land a 1260 in his run and had a more technical rail section than Mark but the gap between first for Max and seventh for Mark seems far too wide. For perspective, Roope Tonteri and Gjermund Braaten got second and fourth in the same heat with spins no greater than 1260.

Click through the gallery here to see a break down of the top eight rider’s runs and then look at Mark’s below.

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And then there’s Sage’s score. He threw down two 1260s in his second run, similar to both Roope and Gjermund and came in eighth in the same heat. Sage likes to play the style card when talking about his riding, but style is a difficult thing to judge since different styles appeal more to some people and less to others. But setting aside aesthetics, shouldn’t the tweaks Sage throws into his tricks meet the criteria of difficulty and risk taking since they make his tricks harder to land, over say a stock mute grab? Roope and Gjermund’s jump lines weren’t that different from Sage’s, minus the tweaks, and they both scored in the 90s, while Sage was in the low 80s. But maybe the judges haven’t keyed into how much harder those tweaks make Sage’s tricks, even though he’s talked about it frequently.

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No doubt judging is a difficult task, but purely looking at the tricks from slopestyle qualifiers there seem to be some big inconsistencies. The problem brings to the forefront ongoing questions about whether it’s time to overhaul contest judging to more accurately reflect style and the difficulty of what riders are doing. Most notably, in a series Tweets, Todd Richards called out the judging during qualifiers saying, “So I have been very critical of the judging squad at events this year. Specifically the qualifications to be a modern judge. I truly believe there needs to be a tear down of qualifications to assign a point value to technical stylish tricks. And I am open to discuss this or at least give a fair chance for rebuttal from the judges. Yesterday’s outcome was less than stellar.”

This isn’t an issue that will be resolved anytime soon but hopefully we’ll see riders like Mark and Sage better rewarded for their riding come slopestyle semifinals on Saturday.

More Sochi 2014 Olympic stories here