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Winter Olympics, Shaun White & Judging in sports: does perfection exist?

In the context of sports, should it be possible to attain a “perfect” score? Put differently, is a judge or panel of judges ever justified in awarding the maximum score possible? Such questions are relevant to a great many sports: gymnastics, diving, and ice skating, to name just a few. With this in mind, Sports Shorts turns its attention to the sport of snowboarding in the light of recent events.

The legacy of Shaun White

Last week at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Shaun White, by all accounts the greatest snowboarder in the sport’s history and certainly its most recognisable name, secured the halfpipe gold medal for a record third time.

Like Federer on the court, Phelps in the pool, and Bolt on the track, White has transcended his sport. Amidst daily headlines that youngsters are dominating the slopes, at 31 years of age White is proof that, for some, age is just a number as he continues not so much to defy the odds as rewrite them.

Controversially, however, a few weeks before the Olympics, at the U.S. Grand Prix of Snowmass in Colorado, White executed a run for which he received a score of 100, the highest possible. On only one other occasion has a 100 score been awarded, which also went to White at the 2012 Winter X Games.

This did not sit comfortably with some, least of all his competition, some of whom clearly felt that the judges erred in their assessment. Perhaps because White executed the very trick which in October had landed him in intensive care requiring 62 stitches to his face, the judges couldn’t resist this perfect denouement.

How does the scoring system work in snowboarding?

Each halfpipe run is scored by a team of three to five judges. Rule 2617 (“Judging Criteria”) of The International Snowboard Competition Rules (ICR) clearly indicates that the judges are to take a holistic approach:

“The overall composition of the run is very important as the judges evaluate the sequences of tricks, the amount of risk in the routine, and how the rider uses the pipe.”

More specifically, but in no particular order, the judges should consider the following criteria:

  • Amplitude
  • Difficulty
  • Execution
  • Variety
  • Pipe Use
  • Progression
  • Risk taking
  • Combinations

Deductions of between 1-10 can be made for small mistakes e.g. light hand touches and other instabilities, between 11-20 for medium mistakes e.g. stop full, extended hand drags, heavy hand touches, and 21-25 for major mistakes e.g. heavy butt checks, body checks and complete bails. (Any deduction by the judges is taken from the score that would have been given with a correct completed landing on the tricks).

Overall impressions count

With these criteria in mind, a perfect – or maximum – score would seem highly unlikely. Even snowboarding laymen could probably discern aspects of White’s apparently perfect routine which could have been better (even if only marginally).

However, the key point to grasp is that scoring in snowboarding is situational. In other words, it’s a means to rank the snowboarders on any given day. For example, a run scoring, say, 98 in one competition, could conceivably be awarded 92 in another competition.

Matthew Jennings, the head judge at the Snowmass event and also in PyeongChang, is reported as saying “a top score was never meant to be a mark of flawlessness”. This is somewhat reflected in the ICR Rules just considered, which are grounded in the notion of “overall impression”, the operative word being impression. It implies subjectivity.

The order in which the riders compete matters in this regard. For example, if on the day that White scored his 100, he had ridden first rather than last, as he did, it is probable that he would have received a lower score. This is to allow the judges some latitude to assess each rider by reference to those that went before him or her – it doesn’t affect the rankings, just the numbers. This much is clear when Jennings comments about Australian Scotty James’ performance at the Snowmass event:

Some judges scored him a 98 and close to 99, but we still had Shaun White coming up, so we had to reserve space”.

The rationale behind this approach is understandable. Snowboarders are continually raising the bar by devising new tricks and executing routines previously not thought possible. And originality (in the guise of ‘progression’) is a judging criterion:

By rewarding progression we help to push the sport forward. Introducing new tricks that have not been performed before.” (emphasis added)

Perfection in other sports

In the face of confusion and criticism, gymnastics overhauled its scoring system in 2005, doing away with its iconic 10-point scoring system in favour of an unlimited alternative. There is now no maximum, or “perfect” score, such as Nadia Comăneci obtained. One set of judges starts from 0, adding points based on certain criteria, whilst another set starts from 10 and deducts.

In diving, at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics Australian diver Matthew Mitcham executed an almost perfect dive in the 10 metre platform discipline, which is the highest achieved in Olympic history. But for one judge who opted to award him a 9.5 rather than a 10, it would have been perfect.

Conclusion

The nature of snowboarding, and so too other sports involving a judging panel, entails an element of subjectivity when it comes to scoring. Just as the sport is ever-changing, with new flips and tricks being introduced at every turn, so too is the concept of perfection, and this is what the judging criteria reflect. In a sense, the debate about whether or not Shaun White was right to receive a 100 is meaningless – as we have established, the scores are significant only in the context of the immediate tournament.

© Copyright 2020 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLPNational Law Review, Volume VIII, Number 50

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