On a recent episode of Fallon Tonight, Ben Stiller described his experience catching some of the men’s snowboard slopestyle final from the 2022 Winter Olympics. As he admitted, he had no institutional knowledge of the sport going in, but by the end of the contest, he was invested in the outcome—namely, the judging.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, Red Gerard just nailed his 1620 switch backside, and then McMorris does the same trick and the judge gives McMorris a higher score!’” Stiller recalled as Fallon laughed. “When is the IOC going to clamp down on the International Ski Federation and police the judging protocols so we can have fair and balanced judging?!”
It was a funny, offhand anecdote from a comedian, made for late-night TV…and yet it encapsulated perfectly the pervasive feeling hanging over the snowboarding community since the Olympics wrapped.
Those in the industry don’t need it rehashed. But for those who may have missed it, there were two major snowboarding judging controversies at the Beijing Games—in men’s slopestyle and men’s halfpipe—and a more general sense of confusion and frustration from riders across many of the events.
In the men’s slopestyle final, Canadian Max Parrot took gold with a score of 90.96 on his best run. The silver and bronze medalists, China’s Su Yiming and Canada’s Mark McMorris, scored an 88.70 and 88.53, respectively, on their best runs—within striking distance of Parrot.
But on his golden run, Parrot grabbed his knee instead of the front of his board, which could have docked him enough points for execution that the podium would have been shuffled.
At the time, Iztok Sumatic, the head judge for Olympic Snowboarding, told Whitelines magazine that Parrot’s run and grab looked clean on the camera angle they were provided from the program feed.
The judges can request a replay if they think something went wrong, but the feed they are provided is a straight program feed with no individual cameras and no replays. Because the run looked clean, the judges did not request a replay.
“Whoever watched it from that angle, almost every single person—if he or she was being honest—would have said that’s a good execution,” Sumatic told Whitelines.
“There were six incredibly skilled judges that were watching the main issue, and not a single one of them questioned what they saw until the replays came and by that point, it’s too late—the scores are already in, basically,” Sandy Macdonald told me. Macdonald was not on the judging panel for the Beijing Games, but he has judged X Games and the Olympics and is currently the head judge for the Natural Selection Tour, a big-mountain snowboarding contest created by Travis Rice.
Riders can also appeal an Olympic podium outcome for up to 15 minutes following a contest, but that didn’t happen at these Games.
The other potential judging controversy at the Games was, in the end, avoided. With Todd Richards on the call for NBC in the men’s halfpipe final, audiences watched as 23-year-old Ayumu Hirano attempted to land the first-ever triple cork (three off-axis flips) at the Olympics.
He did it on his second run, which saw him go frontside triple 1440 (four full rotations), Cab (switch frontside) double 1440, frontside double 1260, backside double 1260 and frontside double 1440.
The run earned Hirano a score of 91.75…which was 1.25 points lower than Australia’s Scotty James at the top of the leaderboard. James hadn’t done a triple—no one but Hirano would—but the judges liked his highly technical and difficult run that saw him do a switch backside 1260, Cab double 1440, frontside 900, backside 1260 and frontside double 1440.
“That was the most difficult halfpipe run in the history of halfpipe that has ever been done,” Richards said on the broadcast of Hirano’s run. Apoplectic, Richards said that the judges had “grenaded” their credibility by scoring Hirano’s run so low. Viewers who don’t regularly watch snowboarding responded positively to Richards’ passion, and for a time, the subject was trending on Twitter.
It’s a divisive issue, to be sure. James’ run was, technically, more difficult—he spun all four directions (frontside, backside, Cab and switch backside) and his switch backside 1260 Weddle grab, in particular, is one of the hardest tricks being done in the pipe.
On the third and final runs, Hirano did the triple again—in fact, he did the same run and cleaned it up—and the judges gave him a score of 96 to win it all, avoiding further controversy.
But the irony of the whole situation is that, four years ago in Pyeongchang, James suggested that the judges weren’t valuing the difficulty of switch frontside tricks and spinning all four directions, generally, high enough. This time around, they clearly tried to do that…and it blew up in their faces.
The men’s slopestyle final featured six section judges—two per feature—and three overall impression judges, as well as Sumatic as head judge. The same six judges were also on the halfpipe final.
Much of the ire following Parrot’s missed grab was directed at the judges, but in truth, this was a bigger, administrative problem rooted in process.
More broadly—and more apparent to those outside the snowboarding community—the Olympics production crew, not specializing in filming live snowboarding events, struggled with camera angles and framing—including capturing the angles judges needed to definitively grade runs.
There was a chuckle-worthy moment during a run in the men’s big air final—in which landing, along with difficulty, execution and amplitude, is a crucial judging criteria—where pro snowboarder and commentator Kelly Clark said, “Let’s get another look at that landing.” The broadcast never showed that angle, and Clark had to shift into a new line of commentary.
Now, to be clear, what Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) has been doing in every Winter Games since Vancouver 2010—providing live radio and television coverage of every sport from every venue and using some 1,000 cameras and a production crew of 7,000-plus—is no small feat, and very few agencies in the world could do it successfully.
The fact remains, however, that snowboarding and other action sports events are particularly challenging to film, and there are production teams that are dedicated exclusively to those sports.
“We all understand in the Olympics it’s hard to just focus on one sport,” said Jordan Velarde, the founder and CEO of Uncle Toad’s Media Group, a video production house specializing in action sports live broadcasts. After producing the Vans Park Series and Volcom Pipe Pro skate and surf events for years, for the last two years the company has led the entire production of the Natural Selection Tour.
“They have to do so much coverage; they bring all the bells and whistles,” Velarde continued. “The Olympic way of covering these sports is a specialty in itself…. You want to have a concise vision when you watch it.”
That being said, Velarde and Uncle Toad’s creative director Chris Steblay both agree that authenticity and understanding of a sport’s culture are the most important aspects of producing a live broadcast. The criticism of the way snowboarding was broadcast at the Beijing Games, they said, stemmed from the inauthentic production of the sport.
“What happened in the Olympics was something that would be devastating for us as a production company,” Velarde said. “We make sure we are talking with judges, having the right camerapeople, making sure what we’re providing is the proper coverage.”
Velarde was brought in by NBC for the Tokyo 2020 Games to work on its first-ever skateboarding broadcast, using his production expertise to advise on everything from where the cameras need to be and how to set them up properly to how to give the audience the best coverage of the sport.
In “stick-and-ball sports,” Velarde explains, you always know where to put the camera. For sports like snowboarding and freestyle skiing, capturing the action could involve getting thousands of pounds of equipment and hundreds of cameras up the top of a mountain.
In producing Natural Selection, a first-of-its-kind snowboarding contest that follows riders as they weave through trees and hit jumps and other features in remote mountain terrain, Uncle Toad’s had to innovate to create a broadcast that would honor the spirit of the contest.
In 2021, the team developed and implemented a novel camera angle—a live stabilized racing drone, with a first-person view like that of a video game—in partnership with world championship racer Gabriel Kocher. The event production earned Uncle Toad’s and Natural Selection Tour a Bronze Clio.
Macdonald told me the drone footage was a “game-changer” for the Natural Selection judges. “We get a sense of watching the drone of how fast the rider’s riding down the course,” he said.
“What I saw at the Olympics this cycle—and again, this was from my couch—has been my experience with other large multisport events mostly,” Macdonald added. “I saw a bunch of sports camerapeople that don’t necessarily know how to make snowboarding look its best. One of the things I always stress—you can be the best TV producer in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a good view for what judges need to judge the sport.”
Macdonald’s “gold standard” for judging these kinds of events would be the exact same camera shot every time for every rider—which, of course, is at odds with what makes for a good broadcast. “What makes good judging is consistency, and consistency in an event with 60 runs is a boring show,” Macdonald said.
“It’s incredibly difficult to try to film an event or sport that you’re not familiar with,” explains Eric Seymour, director of brand communications and content at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which hosts the first stop of the Natural Selection Tour and Kings & Queens of Corbet’s, a one-day ski and snowboard freeride contest that sees athletes hucking themselves down the famed Corbet’s Couloir.
“You need to be able to anticipate where the skier or where the rider is going to track with the action.”
For Kings & Queens alone, 90 days before the event the JHMR production team oversees a team of 45 people from multiple states that transports 6,000 pounds of gear, including almost a dozen generators, up the mountain via tram, on foot, or on skis. They also run 4,000 feet of tactical fiber, 1,000 feet of power cables, 1,500 feet of video cables and 1,000 feet of audio cables to support 15 cameras to make sure the action is captured correctly from every angle.
The events crew for this kind of contest consists of expert-level skiers and riders who can ski black diamond slopes with 45-pound tripods, rigging up camerapeople who are standing on top of cliffs—or often hanging over them on ropes—to get the best angles.
Of course, the Olympics is not a big-mountain freeride contest like Natural Selection Tour or Kings & Queens, and it doesn’t require nearly the level of technical prowess to pull off.
But that’s also kind of the bottom line—skiing and snowboarding at the Olympics takes place on standardized courses, and though riders can hit the slopestyle course or the halfpipe in their own stylistic way, they can’t take completely different lines off the side of a mountain.
It shouldn’t be difficult for judges to receive the angles and feeds they need to judge accurately and quickly in real time—even acknowledging what a Herculean task that is to begin with.
“I’ve ridden slope and big air comps for so long now that I know what the judges are looking for,” said Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, the 21-year-old Olympic gold medalist in women’s snowboard slopestyle and silver medalist in big air. “In slope and big air there’s pretty much a template that you follow, but you can get creative with it and that gives you an extra wow for the judges.
“Going into the Olympics I knew exactly what I needed to do to win gold,” Sadowski-Synnott added. “For me it was a matter of putting it down on the day, and the judges were awesome with how they judged it.”
Julia Marino, the silver medalist in women’s slopestyle and the only American slopestyle medalist, agreed that in the women’s competition, there were no questions about the judging. “It seemed pretty accurate; no one had any complaints while we were there, it seemed like it was pretty on-point which was nice,” Marino said. “It was unfortunate for the boys that it wasn’t I guess what it could have been. It’s a human-judged sport and there’s obviously room for error. We’ll see if this Olympics sparks more conversation about that.”
We’ve established what can go wrong in filming a live snowboarding contest. So what is the solution?
“If we’re talking explicitly about OBS and the way they produce these sports, it needs to be a concerted effort to include professionals in their process of planning,” Steblay said. “In surfing’s Olympic debut [in Tokyo Games], although the conditions weren’t ideal you had a team that’s been doing WSL [World Surf League] events for a decade all gathered producing surfing in the Olympics for the first time ever. They all knew how to do surfing.”
While Steblay acknowledges the Tokyo surfing broadcast had some technical issues like cutting the cameras at the right times, overall, the production felt authentic within the surfing broadcast world. It didn’t look all that different from a WSL broadcast, but it had Olympic touches to it.
“It takes care to make sure whoever you’re including in those creative decision-making processes does care about the way it’s covered,” Steblay continued. “It shows.”
As an example of another contest that gets it right, Macdonald points to the Laax Open, which has a cable cam runs the full length of the course. “That’s perfect for judging for us,” he said.
And contests like the Olympics don’t necessarily need the kind of groundbreaking equipment and filming that accompanies a remote, big-mountain contest. The halfpipe at Laax is permanent, whereas the Olympics, of course, changes venues every four years.
A cable cam on the Olympic halfpipe course would be fantastic for judging, but it’s an unlikely investment given the ephemeral nature of the course. (Now, there’s a separate argument that the winter Olympics should be held in the same location every time, allowing for better infrastructure and investment in the courses—as well as natural snow—but that’s another article.)
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good drone follow-though of a slopestyle course,” Macdonald said. “Just in general, better camera work is the key.”
Of course, there is a limited talent pool of camerapeople capable of shooting this kind of event—and the Olympics isn’t the highest-paying event.
“I can count on two hands who does these sort of things,” Macdonald said.
Even without hiring the few camerapeople in the world who are skilled in shooting live snowboarding contests, Macdonald says one of the biggest pluses would be having someone in the TV truck who knows snowboarding and knows judging and can champion what they need from the camera angles within the production.
“One of the things that we always see is what we call ‘guy in the sky,’ the tight close crop shot,” Macdonald said. “That might be interesting for ultra-slow motion viewing but it’s absolutely useless for us as judges. It shows very little of what we need to evaluate.”
And even endemic snowboarding events have identified areas for improvement in their own broadcasts. In Kings & Queens’ 2019 iteration, Jackson Hole partnered with Red Bull on the media side but hired a third-party production company to do the livestream, which encountered numerous issues—missed runs and poor audio.
So in 2020, Red Bull took over the production to ensure it was done right, bringing in more than 5,000 pounds of production gear and top-notch commentators. They added a live drone and a live on-slope camera to ensure all angles were captured.
“We’ve really tried to build an event that’s for the athletes,” Seymour said.
The lesson? The Olympics doesn’t need a massive overhaul of its process in order to improve its snowboarding broadcasts.
Still, no one I spoke to failed to appreciate what the Olympics has done for professional snowboarding and the place it holds in the industry. There is room for improvement in how it showcases the sport, but it’s an important part of the competitive ecosystem.
“The Olympics play a big role in up-leveling a lot of aspects of the sport and broadcasts,” Steblay said. “It’ll always be what it is—it’ll never be as cool as something like Natural Selection, and it shouldn’t be. We need core broadcasts and events and we need big international ones for everyone. There’s a place for both. They don’t have to meet in the middle by any means.”