KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — When Phoebe Mills showed up for her second Olympics appearance, a full 26 years after her first, she realized not everything had changed. There was still that feeling inside: a need to perform, a drive toward perfection.
“Yeah, I felt the pressure, for sure,” Mills said.
Back in 1988, Mills was a gymnast, a 15-year-old bronze medal winner at the Seoul Summer Olympics. Here at the Sochi Games, though, she reports to the snowboarding venue for a different, increasingly prominent role: judge.
Judges are not the face of the Olympics — and they prefer it that way — but they’ve never been more important. In 1988, when Mills was an athlete, figure skating was the only winter sport that relied on judges. Today in Sochi, however, winners aren’t solely decided by a stopwatch, finish line, scoreboard or measuring tape. There are now 17 events — a total of 51 medals — that are dependent entirely on human discretion, expertise and subjectivity.
And these Olympics, which feature 294 medals in 98 events, have seen that field only grow, adding more judges than ever before. There are 12 new events being contested in Sochi, and seven include judges. That means that 21 of the 36 new medals up for grabs are being passed out with the help of people like Mills, a mostly unknown — and in some circles, unpopular — troop whose exact task seem shrouded in mystery.
“I wouldn’t want to be a judge, man,” said Jossi Wells, a free skier from New Zealand.
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
Who would? Most Olympic judges aren’t paid. Their expenses are covered and they have a per diem, typically less than $100. In fact, many lose money because they have to take vacation from their day jobs. And almost all have day jobs. Mills, for example, is a former lawyer who’s now the director of operations at Woodward Tahoe, a ski resort in California. Bill McNice, who’s judging many of the freestyle skiing events here, is a pharmacy manager at a Safeway in Boulder, Colo.
They all have different stories. Veteran figure skating judge Charlie Cyr has worked alongside morticians, musicians, secretaries and teachers. The lone common thread is a shared passion for the sport. Each sport requires judges to pass an initial certification process, and as they work their way up from local to national to elite events, they undergo continuing education.
Cyr has more than 35 years of judging experience. He was a judge at the 1994 U.S. championships, where Nancy Kerrigan was famously clubbed in the leg, and was tapped to judge figure skating at the Vancouver Games. He did the math recently: Last year he dedicated 110 days to figure skating. He works as a research coordinator for Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and exhausts his vacation time on judging. Many years he has to take time off without pay.
“Same as the athletes,” he said, “we’re here because we love this.”
But there’s still a stark separation between the groups. Even those who’ve been around and know the judges personally can’t quite wrap their heads around the results.
“What are you going to do about FIS judging?” three-time Olympic snowboarder Hannah Teter said, referrring to skiing and snowboarding’s international governing body by its acronym. “Nobody ever agrees with it.”
Teter is actually friendly with Mills, who judged her event in Sochi. Because judges are all entrenched in their sports’ insular communities, they develop relationships with the athletes and coaches they must later judge. Mills has coached Olympians such as Teter and Danny Kass when they were younger and sees many more at the Tahoe resort where she works.
“But when you’re sitting down, putting scores down, you’re just comparing runs and leaving everything else at the door,” Mills said.
The event that drew Teter’s ire was decided by the slimmest of margins. The halfpipe features six judges, each from different countries. The worst and best scores are tossed out, and the average of the remaining four produces the rider’s final mark. When American Kaitlyn Farrington won gold last week, her best run featured scores ranging from 89 to 94. Her final mark — 91.75 — was just 0.25 better than silver medalist Torah Bright. The same margin kept Teter off the medal podium, stuck disappointingly in fourth place.
“I’m not super stoked on the judging,” she said. “I thought I should have had a higher score.”
It’s a familiar refrain at the Olympics. In the judged events, the motto might as well be “Faster, Higher, Stronger, Madder.” Here’s a sampling of what Olympians have said at these Sochi Games:
“Sometimes, you do your thing and they don’t [like it] and you’re like, well, what the hell can I do?”
“The judging — you just never know with these guys.”
“Judging is so weird these days. You have been under-judged or over-judged your whole life. You never know.”
“It’s pretty ridiculous, but it’s a judged sport, what can you do?”
Mills hears it. After all, she competed in a judged sport once. But she doesn’t let it bother her.
“Every contest we go to, everybody has an opinion on the results,” Mills said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a contest where everybody agreed 100 percent.”
American freeskier Devin Logan has a unique sense of appreciation for how hard a judge’s job is. She sat out most of last year with a knee injury. With time on her hands, she became a certified judge, learning more about the process than any of her peers on the slopes.
“I kind of know what they’re looking for, what they want to see,” she said of the judges, who awarded Logan the silver medal in the slopestyle competition last week. “So I’m trying to keep my own style in it, but still work around them.”
Judges say pre-competition practice sessions can provide invaluable preparation for both competitors and their evaluators. “Just as the skaters need to be on their A-game, so do the judges,” Cyr said.
And later, after a competition, he said it’s not uncommon for judges to compare notes. Just like the athletes, they do a thorough review of their performances, the good and the bad.
“There’s always a huge self-evaluation when you come off at an event,” he said. “You ask yourself, ‘Did I do the best job that I could? Were there mistakes? Should I have done something different? With my coming from the U.S., did I have national bias?’ I think everybody does that, not just me.”
And just like athletes, judges can have off days, he said.
“You want to be perfect all the time, but there are times when you look at the event and think, ‘I’m not getting this at all, I’m lost.’ Hopefully that’s not during the Olympic Games,” he said. “Hopefully it’s when you’re judging the little [junior] snowflakes in your home town.”
Even the best judges still work the smallest of competitions. Last year Cyr judged the world figure skating championships. His next competition involved spritely 4-year-olds. The pay was the same.
Mills judged four snowboarding events at the Sochi Games. Six hours after the women’s halfpipe ended, she was at the airport. Her lodging was covered only for the days she was working, and it was time to return home.
“It was a very amazing experience,” she said. “Very, very different than when I was an athlete. . . . Back then, my whole perspective was to pretty much ignore the judging. That was something I didn’t have control over. On this side of the fence, the details and the numbers — that’s everything.”