For the second time in a week, judging controversy became the central narrative of an Olympic men’s snowboarding final.
This time, however, the judges got—and, thankfully, took—a chance to correct it.
First, it was the men’s slopestyle final on Sunday night, where Max Parrot took gold off the strength of a terrific run, but one that saw him grab his knee instead of the front of his board on a jump—a big no-no that could have docked him two or three points.
Given that the silver and bronze medalists Su Yiming and Mark McMorris finished within three points of Parrot, it was a significant error on the judges’ part and it unfairly clouded all three athletes’ incredible achievements.
It almost happened again on Thursday night.
The main storyline heading into the men’s halfpipe final was whether any of the riders would land the elusive triple cork, a trick that represents the next frontier of men’s halfpipe snowboarding.
Involving three off-axis rotations (and tacked onto a similarly high-flying spin trick), the triple cork has only been landed in competition by one rider—Japan’s Ayumu Hirano. The 23-year-old landed the trick at Dew Tour in December and again at X Games in January in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.
However, in halfpipe, riders string together five tricks and are judged on overall impression. In both instances, Hirano fell on his very next hit.
It wasn’t a matter of if the triple would be incorporated cleanly into a run at the Beijing Games—just by whom. Two other riders, also from Japan, had landed the trick in training camp at Saas-Fee, Switzerland, this fall—Ruka Hirano (no relation) and Yuto Totsuka.
Scotty James, meanwhile, has suggested he has the trick in his bag. He went off the radar for much of the 2021-22 season to train on a private halfpipe in Europe, where he was, among other things, working on getting the triple dialled.
But James—and Shaun White, who was even cagier about his own progress with the triple—made it clear in interviews that they wouldn’t even consider doing the trick unless their backs were against the wall at the Olympics. It’s just that dangerous.
That’s why it was somewhat unexpected—and totally awesome—that Ayumu Hirano attempted the triple on the very first hit of his very first run in Thursday night’s final. What’s more, he landed it cleanly and successfully linked it to his next trick, a cab (switch frontside) double 1440 (four full rotations) Weddle grab, and then to a frontside double 1260 and a backside 1260 Weddle grab.
Hirano then fell before he could completely stomp a clean run, but he had sent a jolt through the men’s final by attempting the trick on his first run of three, making his intentions extremely clear: I am leaving here with the gold medal.
As the top qualifier for the final, Hirano had the benefit of being the last rider in the field to drop in.
Scotty James got the memo. On his second run—right before Hirano’s second run—the Aussie went big with his signature switch backside 1260 Weddle grab, cab double 1440 melon, frontside 900 tailgrab, backside 1260 Weddle ending with a frontside double 1440 tailgrab.
It was, as NBC announcer Todd Richards said, the heaviest run of the contest to that point, and it unsurprisingly vaulted James into first place with a score of 92.50.
Ayumu Hirano, Run 2: once again, he started off with the frontside triple 1440 truck driver, then went cab double 1440 Weddle, frontside double 1260, backside double 1260 Weddle and ending with a frontside double 1440 tailgrab.
If you were paying attention, you realized that it was the same run Hirano was trying to complete on his first attempt, even though, with the triple in there, he presumably didn’t need to include three 1440s. (Recall that at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, Shaun White won with a run that started off with back-to-back the 1440s).
And he stomped it.
Richards, a former pro snowboarder, Olympian and seven-time Winter X Games medalist, was beside himself, and his enthusiasm was contagious even for those outside the snowboarding community. Many viewers may not have understood what they were looking at, but through Richards, they understood that it was something extremely special.
Judges evaluate riders on amplitude, difficulty, variety, execution and progression, with the score reflecting overall impression. Richards thought Hirano’s run could score as high as a 98.
The score came back: 91.75.
Richards was apoplectic—surprisingly and refreshingly, considering it’s not often you hear such unvarnished commentary on the broadcast network that has a rightsholder relationship with the Olympics. “ROBBED” began trending on Twitter.
Snowboarding is not a major sport, but for nearly an hour on Thursday night, this was the biggest story in the sports world.
Even now, no sense can be made of it. Before the official scoring was up for the second run, the thought was perhaps the judges had mistaken the triple cork for a double. As Richards pointed out, the triple is a high-risk proposition; how could it be worth it, and why would anyone ever do it again, if it doesn’t earn top score?
Hirano’s run clearly took the cake when it came to progression and difficulty (again, because of the triple). How about amplitude? Well, Hirano’s highest hit was 16’4”, compared to James’ 15’4”.
Both runs had variety, with the 1260s, 1440s and different grabs. James did have that switch backside 1260, so difficult because it requires the rider to take off blind without seeing the landing.
But a triple 1440 is the most difficult trick ever done in the halfpipe. (And the irony there is that, at the 2018 Games, where James took bronze, the 27-year-old felt that the switch backside 1260 wasn’t scored highly enough by judges. Earlier this season, he said he finally felt like judges were starting to weigh the trick accordingly. Apparently so!)
The prospect of another judging controversy marring an incredible snowboarding final full of progression and high-level execution was too much to bear. It wasn’t fair to Hirano, of course, who put down the run of his life.
But it also wasn’t fair to James, whose run was terrific and free of mistakes, and who didn’t deserve to earn a gold medal with an asterisk.
Nor was any of this fair to Shaun White, who, in the middle of the chaos, took the final competitive run of his career. The 35-year-old finished off the podium in fourth, but at the bottom of the halfpipe, when he took off his helmet and wiped tears from his eyes, his competitors gave him a rousing round of applause.
His milestone, however, was overshadowed by the scoring kerfuffle.
Thankfully, with one round of runs to go, the judges had a chance to fix the error—and restore their credibility, which Richards cautioned would be “grenaded” otherwise.
Hirano shouldn’t have had to do the hardest halfpipe run ever landed for a second time, but he did it—even bigger and better. He started with the frontside triple 1440 truck driver into a with a cab double 1440 Weddle, and then finished with the same run he’d done before: frontside double 1260, backside double 1260 Weddle, frontside double 1440 tailgrab.
The judges, intentionally or not, had issued a challenge to Hirano to go bigger. He responded by putting down a run we may not see again in competitive snowboarding for years.
Hirano’s second run earned a 96 (which, again, seems a point or two too low), and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The event ended up with the correct podium: Hirano, gold; James, silver; and Switzerland’s Jan Scherrer, who put down the best run of his career, bronze. Scherrer’s highly technical double alley-oop 1260 scored extremely high with the judges.
Written appeals to upgrade medals can be filed within 15 minutes following competitions. We’ll never know if Hirano would have appealed the result should he have ended up with silver. But the court of public opinion was clearly in his favor.
At X Games, through an interpreter, Hirano told me, “I don’t feel any pressure because I am always focused on just my run and to improve each run. I just compete with myself, not the other people.”
On Thursday night, he had to compete with the judges.
Correction: Going off the official scoring results, an earlier version of this article stated that Hirano had two triple triple corks in his third run, but that has been confirmed to be a data entry error. Hirano had one triple on Run 3.