Olympics 2022: Why is it so hard to judge snowboarding? Explaining the mistakes, failures and admissions

Max Parrot won slopestyle gold last week -- but his score has been the subject of debate after it became clear the judges over-scored him. AP Photo/Aaron Favila

In his final run of snowboard big air finals Tuesday, China's Su Yiming took a victory lap. The Olympic silver medalist from slopestyle one week ago, Su had already locked up the win with his first two jumps, the only rider in the top five whose best two scores came on his first two attempts. In each, Su launched massive 1800s, held his grabs extra long and stomped the trick clean. He wasn't leaving this one up to the judges.

"For four years, I've dreamed of this every night," Su said after becoming the first Chinese snowboarder to win Olympic gold, picking up the medal many believe he earned in slopestyle. That win, however, went to big air bronze medalist, Max Parrot of Canada.

And Parrot's story was heartwarming. A top slopestyle and big air rider for more than a decade, Parrot took silver in slopestyle in Pyeongchang. Ten months later, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. Last Friday in Beijing, he won Olympic gold.

But a judging controversy has hung over his head ever since.

During his winning run, Parrot landed triple corks on each of his three jumps. At first glance, the jump section of his run was clean, technical and progressive. But on second glance -- or on NBC's televised replay -- it became clear Parrot missed grabbing his board on his final trick, a frontside triple cork 1620, and grabbed his knee instead.

In competitive snowboarding, a knee grab is about as egregious as sliding out on a landing. Grabs are used to stabilize a rider's body in the air. They help them spin or flip efficiently and show a rider's control over the trick. Most importantly, they represent a rider's style, his or her stamp on the same trick everyone else is doing.

But they are not required, nor is there a set deduction for not doing them. That's the thing about snowboard judging. It is not standardized like in gymnastics or figure skating, where elements are assigned specific point values that are added up to arrive at a final score. Snowboard judging is subjective, more akin to judging an art contest. And for many reasons, the riders prefer it that way.

Snowboarding prides itself on resisting the rigidity of sports like figure skating and gymnastics, and the judging, in theory, represents that ethos. Land the same tricks as everyone else, but go bigger, do a better grab -- or be the final rider to drop in a contest, and chances are the score will be higher. Innovate and land a trick you've never done before -- or better yet, one that no rider has ever landed in a contest -- and chances are you'll score big.

Because while the judging criteria -- execution, difficulty, amplitude (height above the halfpipe or jump), variety and progression -- are meant to be weighed equally in pursuit of a score based on overall impression, most judges value progression above all.

But if they don't, that's OK. That's what makes snowboard judging so difficult, and as the sport has progressed to the level it is at today, so inconsistent.

At the Olympics, a panel of six international judges, plus a head judge, scores each run and the highest and lowest scores are tossed. But every judge on that panel might value the criteria differently, which means six judges can see -- and score -- the same run differently. Some reward spinning and flipping over style and innovation, and others see the sport precisely the opposite way. Judges are also humans who are susceptible to being caught up in a rider's story, past results or post-run celebration.

But in the case of Parrot's slopestyle win, the judges -- hired and trained by the International Ski Federation, the controversial overlords of Olympic snowboarding since its inception -- saw the same run and mis-scored it.

In two separate interviews after the event, head Olympic snowboard judge Iztok Sumatic, a longtime snowboarder, admitted that the panel made a mistake. In replays and in photos posted online after the contest, it became clear Parrot missed the grab on his final trick. But the judges didn't catch it. Sumatic blames NBC's camera angles, which is what the judges were using to score the event.

"We judged what we saw," Sumatic told snowboard website Whitelines.com. "And what we saw was a grab and a well-executed switch frontside 16 from the point of view of a camera that we were given. We need to make a decision in seconds, because it's live. We are being pushed to be on time."

"We are in an era where we should (build) a new system that can measure everything. In the world of competition, there should be a way to measure height and grabs (numerically). Athletes are taking risks, so we should be evaluated and judged more clearly." Ayumu Hirano

Sumatic said that while Olympic judges are entitled to replays when they request them, in Parrot's case, they didn't ask for one because they didn't know they'd missed anything worth seeing a second time. "We just had this camera angle that they gave us, and it looked clean," Sumatic said. "Everything Max did was super clean and super good. We judged what we saw and everyone felt confident with it."

Once the scores were submitted, Sumatic says it was too late to change them. But had they caught the missed grab, "it would be a different score. Yes," he said. The podium would have shifted, too. Su -- who landed the only 1800 of the contest -- would have won gold. Parrot's teammate, Mark McMorris, would have taken silver and defending champ Red Gerard of the U.S. likely would have bumped up into the bronze-medal spot.

"Until we have people caring about having proper cameramen on the scene, proper feeds displayed for the judges, proper training and accountability for the judges, as well, it's going to be an uphill battle to get proper judging," McMorris told the AP on Tuesday.

In reference to the judges' inability to change Parrot's score after it was submitted, McMorris added, "I think that was somewhat a get-out-of-jail-free card. Because I think there was a lot of things they could have done to maybe make that situation a little bit better."

He's not wrong. Over and again, snowboard judges lay claim to having one job at a contest: Get the podium right. The fluid nature of snowboard judging allows them to score with that in mind. So, in theory, once they realized they'd over-scored Parrot's second run, they could have done the same for Su and McMorris after they landed their best runs in the third round.

But just like a blown holding call in the final minutes of a Super Bowl or any number of questionable Olympic podiums across sports, what's done is done. Parrot's win stands. It's what happens next that is up for debate.

"We are in an era where we should [build] a new system that can measure everything," Japanese rider Ayumu Hirano said in a news conference one day after his halfpipe win. "In the world of competition, there should be a way to measure height and grabs [numerically]. Athletes are taking risks, so we should be evaluated and judged more clearly."

During Saturday's halfpipe final, Hirano was nearly another casualty of inexplicable judging. In his second run, Hirano became the first snowboarder to land a full contest run that included a triple cork, the most hyped trick in the sport heading into the Games. Longtime NBC commentator Todd Richards, who competed for the U.S. in the Olympic debut of halfpipe snowboarding in 1998, speculated on-air that Hirano would receive a 97 or 98 for the run. When his actual score -- 91.75 -- was announced, fans booed and the hashtags #robbed and #triplegate trended on Twitter.

"As far as I'm concerned, the judges just grenaded all their credibility," Richards said on the broadcast. "I know when I see the best run that's ever been done in a halfpipe. Try to tell me where you're deducting from this run. It's unbelievable that this is even happening. It's a travesty."

No one was more stunned than Hirano, who later said his confusion at seeing a second-best score turned to anger, which fueled him to land the same five tricks again in his third run -- incredible in itself -- and earn a 96 to win.

That an Olympic athlete had to land the best run in the history of halfpipe snowboarding a second time to win gold was absurd. In Hirano's third run, with the same five tricks and same grabs, the same six judges scored him a full 4.25 points higher. The U.S. judge elevated his score by seven points.

"We want to have sound standards and I think we should look into exactly what the judges were looking at," Hirano said. "For the athletes, they're putting their lives on the line, they're giving it their all. So, for the riders, I think some steps need to be taken to address this issue regarding the judges."

As sports like snowboarding and freeskiing become bigger and more mainstream, and as the riders continue to push and progress, the judging needs to progress along with them. Snowboarders don't want to see their sport become standardized. But they want it to be fair. The question is, how do they get there?