While snowboarders and free skiers soar in the air, doing back flips, twists and gravity-defying leaps at the Olympics, on the ground judges are feverishly recording the tricks and details of the athletes’ runs on a steno sheet.
To an untrained eye, their short-hand notes may look like scribbles in a foreign language or a mathematical equation. But to a judge, the sheet is the most important tool in the judging booth.
During a run, a judge must be able to steno a run in progress quickly and accurately and write down codes for five criteria: amplitude, difficulty, execution, progression and variety. Then they have 30 seconds to compare the run and give a score before it sent off to enter into TV graphics.
"It’s a skill that you develop over time to keep your eyes on the rider while you’re taking the notes," said Steele Spence, an Olympic freeski and halfpipe judge. "It takes a couple of years to dial in, but you don’t want to be looking down at your paper and miss something important."
Judges must have current knowledge of freeskiing tricks, progression and athletes. They must be able to immediately recognize a brand new grab, style or trend.
Spence, a former competitor in slopestyle, said judges practice their judging while competitors practice their runs. They start taking notes, "get a feel for the competition," and by the time the contest starts, they have a good idea of athletes' range and level -- whether an athlete will be doing an octo-grab, a seatbelt grab or a stalefish grab.
The judging is based on comparing and ranking runs, using the steno sheet. But the biggest misconception is about a score itself, said Spence. Each competition has it’s own scoring range and it can vary from heat to heat. The same run can be a score of 75 at one competition but 85 at another.
"We use the score to rank a run above or below another run. The number is essentially just our tool to rank it in fifth place or sixth place," Spence said.
Judging can be intense, with only seconds for each of the five judges to come up with their scores. They don’t always agree.
"It’s good for judges to have their strong opinions," Spence said. "In the heat of the moment it can get fiery in there. You have to respect the other judges' opinion, they have to respect yours.”