When freeskiing makes its Olympic debut starting Feb. 11 with women's ski slopestyle in Sochi, Russia, six judges will determine the fate -- or at least, who wins and who doesn't -- of the athletes. Those judges will come from all over the world, including Sweden, Canada, France, New Zealand and the U.S. The head judge for both slopestyle and halfpipe skiing is American Josh Loubek, a long-time X Games judge and the director of judging for the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP). We spoke to Loubek about what it'll take to win gold in Sochi and what he's most nervous about.
XGames.com: How were the judges chosen for Sochi?
Loubek: The judging process started a couple of years ago. The AFP met with the International Ski Federation (FIS) at their meeting in Zurich and suggested that they adopt the AFP judging format. It was a productive meeting -- they agreed and asked the AFP to educate and clinic new judges. So we initiated judging clinics all across the world and we were able to educate a lot of judges and create consistency in formats from event to event. After clinics, we began to compile a list of qualified judges for each country. The Olympic panel is an extremely experienced and qualified list of judges.
What's the formula for how a score will be determined in Sochi?
When the run starts, the five scoring judges take a shorthand description of the run describing the skier's jumps and maneuvers, the highlights and any mistakes. We often have one judge calling the tricks, which if incorrect, quickly becomes corrected with five other judges watching. It's kind of a checks and balances type of thing. As the run finishes, we start entering scores while often having discussions about their ranking. As judges start to agree or sometimes disagree, they enter their score. The scores are averaged and those scores go to me, the head judge. I look to see if the score fits into the proper ranking discussed and that those scores are not too far off in range, then I give the final OK to the computer technician and he releases the score.
What do you think it will take to win an Olympic gold?
That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? Not to speak around the issue, but the AFP judges have always shied away from telling athletes what they need to do to win. We want the athletes to dictate the sport and not the judges. If we did provide a winning example or some type of formula, then every athlete would do the same thing trying to max out the formula. I will say that a top run will need to be very clean with strong amplitude, good style and execution, mixed with variety, progression and difficulty, a dynamic run that includes spinning in both directions and defined grabs. However, there is no rule that they must do a specific maneuver.
How do you deal with athletes or fans saying that a skier has been misjudged or given an improperly high or low score?
It's hard. We want to be as transparent as we can. But then again it's a subjective sport, so that's the nature of the event and some athletes will always be bummed. We often try to have civil and respectable conversations about their concerns. And frankly, sometimes the athlete or coach makes a compelling point. However, we had to make a decision and someone had to be on the bottom end of that decision. I promise our judges take the job extremely seriously and work hard at trying to make the right decisions.
What's the hardest part about your job?
The level is so high and the stakes are even higher. What is also becoming a concern is the pressure coming from coaches and teams. Their jobs largely rely on how well their athletes do, which often relates to funding for the team and programs. They are all training super hard, and competitions are the staple of success. So when an athlete doesn't make finals, they can tend to go a little blind to the competition and just focus on their athletes.
What's your biggest fear heading into Sochi?
Well, first, will they have enough snow? Last year it was 70 degrees when we did a test event and they had to cancel slopestyle for lack of snow. More so, I just hope the athletes, teams, fans, the ski industry and general public stay or get stoked on the culture of the sport. The Olympics are a huge platform and I know everyone wants the gold, which puts a lot of pressure on athletes, teams and us judges. But for me, the big picture is highlighting the culture, the lifestyle and the athleticism that is also artistic.
What are you most excited to see?
I'm stoked for both pipe and slopestyle events. The amplitude in pipe is such a fun crowd pleaser and I suspect we will see some triples in slope. From the women's side, it's very competitive as they have been progressing super fast. So I'm really just pumped for the athletes to perform, for the world to see the sport and hopefully for those darn judges to get it right.