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As snowboarders continue to push the limits, the sport may be too difficult to judge

“It’s a judged sport in the end, so there’s always some of the guys that think [they] deserve better,” Canada's Max Parrot said. “Sometimes it works in your favor; sometimes it doesn’t.” (Elsa/Getty Images)

BEIJING — As Canada’s Max Parrot prepared for his third run in the men’s big air final Tuesday, the event’s judges were on the top of his mind. Less than a week after he won a controversial gold medal in the slopestyle after judges appeared to award him points for a trick he didn’t do, Parrot didn’t want to risk anything in his bid to make the podium again. He knew a clean, safe frontside 1620 probably would be good enough for a medal.

His strategy worked. Parrot landed the trick and was awarded a score of 76.25, good enough to win a bronze medal in an event that afterward was celebrated by its participants as the most progressive the sport has ever seen. But as these Olympics showcased the boundaries the sport is pushing — several riders attempted or completed 1800s, including gold medal winner Su Yiming of China and silver medalist Mons Roisland of Norway — the Games also left snowboarders on edge about their sport’s judging, which has been heavily scrutinized after questionable showings in the slopestyle and halfpipe.

“The sport of snowboarding has been evolving so much in the past 15 years, like every year. It’s not the first time we’ve talked about the judges,” Parrot said. “It’s a judged sport in the end, so there’s always some of the guys that think [they] deserve better. Sometimes it works in your favor; sometimes it doesn’t.”

It appeared to work in Parrot’s favor as he won the gold medal in slopestyle last week after he was awarded points on his first run for grabbing his board — an element that is as important as flips or spins during a routine. But replays of the run showed Parrott actually grabbed his knee, which he later acknowledged in an interview with CBC.

His winning score of 90.96 was good enough to edge Su and fellow Canadian Mark McMorris, who after finishing out of the medals in big air Tuesday said these Olympics brought “wobbles” from judges but that the sport’s evolution has made it difficult on the people scoring competitions.

“It’s made it trickier to get a grasp on. … It’s tough for them. Honestly, how can you decipher an [1800] from that [1800], that that guy landed down there but that guy didn’t? It’s really tricky,” McMorris said. “Just like us, we have a lot of pressure at the Olympics, and so do they.”

The judging in snowboarding events, which is conducted by the International Ski Federation (FIS), came under a microscope again during the men’s halfpipe final last week. Japan’s Ayumu Hirano completed an unprecedented second run — he pulled off a triple cork, considered the hardest trick in the sport and one that had never been landed in the Olympics — but it was awarded a curious score of 91.75 by the judges, which kept him in second place. Hirano completed another triple cork on his third run to secure a gold medal, but not before NBC commentator Todd Richards, considered a legend in the sport, unleashed on the judges.

“As far as I’m concerned, the judges just grenaded all their credibility,” Richards said during the telecast. “I know the ingredients of a winning run. I know when I see the best run that’s ever been done in a halfpipe. Try to tell me where you’re deducting from this run. It’s unbelievable that this is even happening. It’s a travesty, to be completely honest with you.”

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After the controversy erupted in the men’s slopestyle, Iztok Sumatic, the head judge for Olympic snowboarding, said in an interview with the publication Whitelines that judges had not seen a replay of Parrot’s run before issuing their score.

“I think you have to really analyze that they’re judging live as it goes,” said New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, who won a gold medal in women’s slopestyle and finished with silver in big air Tuesday.

“This Games would have been like none other to judge,” said Australia’s Tess Coady, who finished ninth in women’s big air. “They’ve had some pretty challenging calls to make. In saying that, yeah, there’s been some kind of questionable things that have happened as well. But I don’t really feel like there is anybody at fault for that.”

Sadowski-Synnott and Coady had watched with anticipation as Austria’s Anna Gasser completed her final run Tuesday. Gasser threw her hands into the air after landing a trick she had never done in competition — a triple cork with a cab double 1260 — but she was unsure how the judges would score it. Gasser had wished she had pulled it off with more style and did her best to quell her nerves while waiting at the base of the mountain.

“The judges are deliberating hard,” the venue’s announcer declared, and after another minute, the score was in: 95.50, good enough to vault Glasser to a second consecutive gold medal in the event.

“I thought it should score better … but I would’ve been happy either way, because I could land it and finally do it in a competition,” she said. “You had to stay clean today. That’s what [the judges] wanted to see. I felt like it was a fair competition, but also when you compete yourself, you don’t see everyone.”

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The top women in Tuesday’s event came together and shed tears after Gasser won, which some of the medalists said reflected the camaraderie of their community and the respect they have for one another. They had attempted tricks that had never been landed before: Before Gasser’s groundbreaking run, Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi tried the first triple underflip in Olympic history and barely missed the landing.

“I feel like with women, it’s still easier to judge than the men’s competition. I still feel like we do a lot of different tricks, where with the men you see like all 30 doing 16s,” Gasser said. But as she settled in to watch the men’s competition a few hours later, more competitors were pushing the limit with 1800s.

That included Parrot, who landed an 1800 with a triple cork on his second run, which allowed him to avoid taking any chances — with his strategy or the judging — as he settled for bronze on his final jump.

“I chose snowboarding because I love the sport, and it ends up that it’s a judged sport,” Parrot said. “In the end, if you don’t like it, go for a timed sport.”

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