It doesn't sound like the mandatory straight air is going anywhere, but a number of other changes have been made to snowboarding's Olympic judging system since Shaun White and Torah Bright won halfpipe gold in 2010. Those changes, as well as the system as a whole, were discussed at last week's annual International Ski Federation (FIS) fall meetings in Zurich, Switzerland, as the sport creeps ever closer to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The mandatory straight air has long been a (controversial) staple of FIS halfpipe competitions, but in an interview conducted after last week's meetings, FIS snowboard judging chairman Ola Sundequist said he doesn't anticipate FIS nations will vote for its removal before the Olympics, which is the only way it'd be eliminated.
"The straight air is there to protect the sport," Sundequist said, "because as the sport becomes increasingly technical and difficult, some kids no longer understand what is being done and therefore have no interest in going out and riding a halfpipe. They'll slide on a rail instead because it's easier. By forcing the riders to do a straight air we hope that there is still incentive for kids to ride pipe. Think of it as an entry point into the sport."
By comparison, straight airs were not mandated at last winter's FIS Freestyle Ski World Championships and head judge Josh Loubek said he doesn't expect them to be required when halfpipe skiing makes its Olympic debut in 2014.
As for the system overall, despite the FIS's inclination to allow the Association of Freeskiing Professionals -- an independent body -- too oversee Olympic judging preparations in that sport, Sundequist indicated the FIS has no plans to change Olympic snowboard judging protocol and adopt the more progressive SLS system used on the TTR World Tour, snowboarding's premier pro circuit.
Sundequist, whose judging roots are in freestyle skiing, is one of eight snowboarding judges who have been tabbed to work the 2013 World Championships in Canada. These eight judges are also slated to judge the 2014 Winter Games in Russia, where slopestyle will make its Olympic debut. Sundequist said the Sochi slopestyle competitors will be judged on overall impression via a live video feed. The SLS system, by contrast, stations individual judges at each slopestyle feature or halfpipe hit (two judges per feature this year, up from one last year) and those judges score only that feature. Overall impression is also scored by two separate judges.
"They believe they have a good system," Sundequist said of the TTR. "I don't believe they have a good system. The best part of that system is you can build a very good TV show. It's fragile. Imagine if those judges get bought or paid by a nation or someone in the industry, and nobody can verify whether their score is right. I keep thinking about the figure-skating scandal. The best way would probably be to have five judges per feature, but that's too expensive."
TTR and FIS judge Phoebe Mills -- the lone American slated to judge the 2013 Worlds and 2014 Olympics -- said she believes both systems are designed to find the right winner. "SLS is more progressive and it works great for slopestyle, but overall impression is tried and true," she said. "For something as big as the Olympics, they're not going to go with something as new as the SLS system, which is still being tweaked. But on the flip side, I think it's awesome that TTR is moving forward and trying something new."
The Olympic snowboard judging system has drawn criticism in the past, with some athletes -- including two-time gold medalist Shaun White -- not trusting the judges to recognize the difficulty of certain tricks when they are thrown on the fly in the Olympics. White was quoted in a 2009 Wall Street Journal story as saying he elected not to save his best new tricks for Vancouver and instead threw them in earlier competitions because he needed "to educate the judges" -- showing them the tricks so they could figure out how to judge them. In 2006, Mason Aguirre and U.S. coach Ricky Bower felt Aguirre's run was not scored high enough despite being much more technically advanced than that of bronze medalist Markku Koski.
Though the mandatory straight air requirement will likely remain in place for Sochi, the snowboard scoring system will be changed as follows: There will be six scoring judges (not five, as there were in Vancouver) for the 2014 pipe competition and slopestyle's debut. In addition, the top and bottom scores will be dropped in Sochi to protect against biases, leaving four overall-impression scores on a 100-point scale that will be averaged, instead of added together, as Olympic scores used to be. The freeski scoring system has yet to be determined for 2014, but Loubek said he hopes it mirrors the snowboarding system.