Judging: It's one of the most vital parts of a snowboard contest, but also one of the most misunderstood. And by far the most controversial.
For many viewers, snowboard judging is a mysterious, possibly even confusing, process. And, like most judged sports, it inevitably becomes a lightning rod for controversy from time to time, especially when the sport's biggest names are involved.
So, it's time to pull back the curtain a bit.
Last month in Breckenridge, NBC Olympics caught up with Tom Zikas to get some perspective. A veteran of the snowboard industry, Zikas has been the head judge at most of the major contests in the U.S., including X Games, the Burton U.S. Open, Dew Tour, and Air & Style.
If you're completely unfamiliar with the judging process, it may help to get acquainted with the basic criteria that judges use to evaluate halfpipe, slopestyle and big air contest runs. Then come back and check out our conversation with Zikas for more detailed insight.
Among the topics covered: how snowboarding differs from other judged sports, the subtleties that judges look for in a run, and what it actually means when riders receive a "perfect 100" score from the judges.
NBC Olympics: First of all, can you explain what the role of a head judge is?
Tom Zikas: Primarily you're overseeing the scoring. Some head judges take a backseat and just look at the scores as they come in and make sure everything looks close. But I act like I'm actually judging as well, and I'll get a ballpark in my mind where I think the scores should fall. And then as the scores come in, if someone's way off, you might just ask them what they saw or why they thought a score should have been so far below what everyone else had. Ultimately you lead the group and make sure everything's accurate. If something's coming in funny, you just make sure there's a good reason for it, and if there should be a change, you might have to step in and make that change.
One thing that's always seemed interesting is the amount of interaction between the judges. In a lot of other sports, like figure skating, the judges aren't allowed to speak to one another. How much communication actually is there between the judges when they're looking at runs?
Honestly, we try to keep it very minimal. When you're watching, say, a slopestyle run, there's so much going on. It's easy to potentially miss a grab, or you might have been looking down and making a note on a prior trick while the next trick's starting. So we keep it to a minimum of facts that happened when we have discussions during runs, like if a judge says he couldn't see if the rider got the grab. We don't have discussions of, "Well, I think he should have been first!" We just have some casual discussions about the facts of the run, and then we base our decisions off that.
What are the judges looking for this year above all else?
The riding is at such an insane level right now. Obviously the trick difficulty is key, but at the same time, we want to see these difficult tricks done with good style, good execution and good landings. So we would rather see maybe a slightly less difficult trick, but done well. We don't want to see a rider throw an 1800 just to throw an 1800 if it's not grabbed and it looks really ugly. We would most likely score a trick with less rotation higher if it's done well. So style and execution are definitely factors.
There's a trend now, especially in halfpipe, where you have guys like Chase Josey and Ben Ferguson who are going for these really unique and stylish runs, versus guys like Shaun White going for big tricks. Is there a consensus yet on how these two different types of runs should be evaluated against each other?
There definitely is a trend, and that's speaking more to pipe where we're seeing these runs that are not just spun downhill. We're seeing diversity in the runs, and we're seeing a lot of switch backside tricks and alley-oop tricks. We've seen those in the past, but now we're seeing them with good amplitude and done well, and the judges are definitely looking at that and rewarding that more than, say, a stock run that we’ve seen three years ago. We might see runs that are more unique with maybe a little less amplitude, but we're kind of steering toward that just to reward some diverse riding.
When you talk about stock runs, do riders ever kind of get evaluated against themselves? Like, "This guy's been doing the same run for the last three years, so we're going to dock him."
We definitely do not evaluate that way. If they've been doing the same run but the run is done well, we judge it for what it is. But at the same time, like we just talked about, there's riders that are progressing and doing newer tricks, and it's starting to supersede those stock runs.
What are some of the more subtle things, either good or bad, that judges are taking note of that fans watching at home might not notice at first?
Grabs are a big part of what we're looking at — making sure that tricks are grabbed and grabbed well. You'll see riders that might just kind of touch their board for part of the rotation and let go early. Then you'll notice that other riders are holding the grab the whole way through, and there's riders that are doing unique grabs that are a bit more difficult. And that makes a huge difference — depending on which direction you're spinning and which hand you're grabbing with, you might be kind of counter-rotating. So all that stuff definitely plays a role in our scores.
When it comes to progression, what are the judges looking for right now?
We're seeing a lot of progression in halfpipe with switch backside tricks and 1440s, which last year we didn't see too many of. So we're looking for bigger spins in the pipe done well and switch backside tricks done well with amplitude.
So when you talk about switch backside tricks, Scotty James has been working on a switch backside 1260. How does that compare versus a 1440 maybe done frontside?
It definitely carries so much more weight [when a trick is done with a switch backside rotation]. Switch backside in a halfpipe is a really awkward spin, and it's awkward to do with lesser rotations, let alone a 1260. So it definitely holds a lot of weight.
How do most of the judges get involved in the sport?
A lot of judges are past competitors. It varies by level, but pretty much all of our judges have been past competitors and pro riders. And now we go to judges' clinics every year to brush up on the current tricks that are being done. We invite coaches and current riders to come attend the clinics and give their feedback. So it's just from years of being involved in snowboarding and attending clinics and, most of all, coming up through lower-level events and showing us that you can produce good results. There's definitely a selection process as you start getting to these higher-level events.
It's funny, because I've judged with former pro riders who just can't grasp the concept of judging. They know the tricks and they know what they're looking at, but when it comes to evaluating a run, they just can't pull it together. So at times, there's judges that maybe haven't been the best competitor ever, but they can really break down a run, and they know what they're looking at, and they're able to produce good results.
How much do the judges pay attention to the media and Twitter and all the criticism that inevitably comes with judging?
Yeah, we see a lot of that. We see it and we basically laugh at it. The amount of effort that goes into us breaking down a run — there's so much we're looking at. When the media or the general public is just looking at a run, they might see the "wow" factor of one trick, but when it comes to a slopestyle run, we're looking at every single hit and we're taking everything into consideration, not just that one "wow" factor trick that might have been done right at the end that everyone thought was insane. We thought it was insane too most likely, but we have to take in the whole package, not just one particular trick.
Another thing I wanted to ask you about. You were a part of the decision to award a perfect 100 during a run [Shaun White at X Games in 2012]. I know it's kind of a symbolic thing because you can only do it for the final rider, but how does that come about where you decide to give that perfect score?
Honestly, the numbers of the actual scores are more about a ranking. The numbers are a vehicle to place these riders how they should have ranked that particular day. So basically from event to event, you can't say, "Well he got a 100, there's no better run that can be done," because snowboarding progresses every day. So we have to adjust our range of scores to every single contest because snowboarding improves. So what is a 90 at an event one day — by the end of the season, a 90 is going to be a much better run.
So anyway, the way we came about with giving Shaun a 100 at the X Games that year is this: At the time, it was the last run of the competition and it was, in our opinion, the best run in snowboard history. Everyone gave us crap about, "Oh he touched the wall a little bit," but that was irrelevant. It was just the most insane run. It was the best run in snowboard history at the time, and we just felt he deserved a 100.
Note: A few weeks after this conversation took place, Shaun White again received a perfect 100 — this time at the U.S. Grand Prix at Snowmass in January 2018. Zikas was not part of the judging panel at that contest.
Final question. What are the judges' relationships with the riders like?
It's snowboarding, so it's a tight-knit community. We all know each other, and I think it's a good relationship. Any time a rider has an issue with one of their runs, we're like, "Please, come talk to us," because we want to tell you exactly why we gave you what we did, and we ultimately want to help you. We'll tell you exactly why we gave you that score. If you got third and thought you deserved second, we'll tell you what the other guy did to deserve second. So we have a very open relationship, we're all friends, and the judges want to help them do better if they ever have any questions.