With a firsthand look from the commentator’s booth in PyeongChang, BBC correspondent Ed Leigh offers some words on what the world has witnessed during the snowboarding events at the 2018 winter olympics. Everyone is most definitely in agreement on one thing: women’s slopestyle was an absolute miss for the riders, the world, and the sport. But who is to blame?
The 2018 Women's Olympic Slopestyle Post Mortem
Words: Ed Leigh
Now the sirens have stopped wailing and the initial shock has turned to anger, it's time to take a closer look at what happened on Monday morning 10am local time. Everyone agrees we have a body in the morgue and it has been identified as the Women's olympic slopestyle finals. We even know what the murder weapon was: the wind. The only thing we don't know is who killed it.
There are three suspects:
1. The riders. It's simple Darwinism no? At some point self-preservation should have kicked in and they could have refused to ride.
2. The coaches. Their primary role is to protect riders and keep them safe as they develop talent. Why did they not call it off?
3. The TD, or technical delegate. In this case, Roman Arnold – the man charged with, amongst other things, ensuring the field of competition is safe for the athletes participating.
So let’s start at the beginning. The team captains meeting on the Sunday just after qualification had been cancelled. Roberto Moresi, the contest director, announced to the coaches that the options for Monday were very simple: run or cancel.
This instantly threw all the suspects into a difficult place. They all knew the wind forecast for Monday was stronger and so they all started preparing mentally to run in difficult conditions. No one wants to give up an Olympic final, something they have all worked towards for two years or more.
At 10am on Monday morning the wind was absolutely howling across the slope course. By 10:15 it had died down and at 10:20 practice was in full swing. Women were clearing the kickers and the more experienced were throwing down 7s. No doubles, but most tricks were landed. Practice stopped at 10:50. The event started at 11:15 and when it did, it is very important to realize that conditions were acceptable.
Within 10 minutes, though, just after Jessika Jenson dropped, the wind started to gust horrifically. This is the critical moment. At this point the riders are in go mode. I was in the commentary box with Jenny Jones, the bronze medalist from Sochi, who said, “psychologically you can't afford to lose focus. You have to be in the mind set that you're going to be riding.” She spoke to Spencer O'Brien post finals who confirmed exactly that thought precisely – riders were focused solely on dealing with the wind.
So surely this leaves the coaches at fault? Seeing the conditions, they should have stepped in. Certainly in the social media blame-game aftermath the coaches shoulder responsibility. Many said they too had been focused on supporting riders once the decision had been made to run.
Anna Gassers coach Gigi Scheidl's Facebook post makes for very interesting reading, he asked all the coaches why he was the only coach who submitted a formal protest to the TD? It is a valid question, but ultimately futile because Gigi was told that the FIS rulebook states clearly that there is no allowance to protest the weather, matters regarding the weather are at the discretion of the TD.
So this is where we start to hone in on the truth, despite their guilt the coaches couldn't do much once the contest has started. Yes, they could have boycotted, but here we arrive at the pitfall of competitive funding from national associations. To pull out at this stage would almost certainly have seen funding for most of the athletes and coaches cut and so a lot of them opted to roll the dice. That instinct I would forgive because it is survival, but there would have been some who saw the conditions turn a fair contest into a lottery. That introduces a much more sinister motive...
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So ultimately it comes down to the TD. He had the authority to make the call and he didn't make it. In his defense, once the contest is running, his focus is on securing results. Watching the contest unfold as it did, with five runs landed of the first 25, it seems improbable he couldn't recognize the carnage unfolding in front of him. We can only assume that for Roman, as it was for the riders, the sense of occasion got the better of him.
In post mortem Lesley McKenna, the Director of the GB Park and Pipe team, had a great analogy for the breakdown. "It's similar to when they introduced black boxes to planes. They expected to find mechanical failures causing crashes. Instead they found human errors – faults in the chain of command where no one knew whose responsibility it was to make calls."
So while there are failures from everyone, the buck stops with the TD. We've got him bang to rights; it's certainly an easy fit. For me, though there is a fourth culprit and there was a clue earlier on, the sharper of you would have already spotted it. When Robbie Moresi, the contest director, had enquired into the possibility of postponing the event, just as they had with downhill the day before, he was told by the IOC's TV arm, OBS, that it was run or cancel. For me, this inflexibility created the situation. With no room to move, people were put in impossible situations that, combined with the pressure of competing on the biggest stage, led to bad decision-making.
Will we get a conviction? Highly unlikely. All we can hope is that lessons have been learned and in future the schedule will allow for some movement. But that's about as likely as North Korea hosting the 2026 games.
As a footnote I would like you all to think about this scenario when applied to surfing. Imagine Tokyo 2020 with a 3-hour weather window for the surf finals.
An alert came in late last night in PyeongChang from the Olympic Broadcasting Service informing broadcasters of a schedule change. Due to a forecast of bad weather the format of women's qualification for big air on Monday the 19th has been changed. The duration of qualification has been cut from three hours down to two. This means instead of three qualifying runs, it's been cut to two, perhaps to give more time in case of delay.
This is proof that they are trying to make amends for the fiasco that was slopestyle. It doesn't change the fact that they will ultimately be forced to run or cancel again. This drama could very well flare up again and we're willing to bet that second time round the coaches and riders will not be so easily cowed into running.
More from TransWorld SNOWboarding here.