The snowboarder who wears boxing gloves in the halfpipe hit back at the judges on Thursday.
“I feel like there have been times I was a bit shafted,” James said in reference to the judging this season at a press conference in PyeongChang.
The 23-year-old from Australia has consistently finished as the runner-up this season to several different riders. The results from his last three contests: second to Jake Pates at Breckenridge, second to Shaun White at Snowmass, second to Ayumu Hirano at X Games.
While his main rivals, White and Hirano, have been focusing on back-to-back double cork 1440s, James has breaking new ground with his switch backside double cork 1260.
Despite the fact that it has less rotation than White and Hirano’s 1440s, the switch backside 1260 is arguably the most technical trick being done by any halfpipe rider because of how the rider is spinning when they start the trick. Switch backside spins are so difficult that many riders do not even include a single one in their halfpipe runs.
The only rider who has landed the switch backside 1260 is James, and he doesn’t think that trick, or his runs in general, are getting enough respect.
“I think the biggest thing that frustrated me is that I have been working my whole life and then some silly people behind a desk dictate some scores,” James said.
Halfpipe runs are not just judged on one trick, of course. Judges are considering the entire package – factoring in things like amplitude, variety and execution – when they input their scores.
But James’ main grievance isn’t necessarily about his own scoring. He admits that he’s had words with the judges about the way they scored another rider. In particular, the perfect 100 that the U.S. Grand Prix judges gave to White at Snowmass in January.
“Not because of getting second place – I am not a sore loser,” James said. “I was just curious as to [why they gave Shaun the perfect 100 score]. Personally, and I have spoken to a lot of other snowboarders, it’s pretty tough to get a perfect score. I didn’t agree with that at all.”
James’ comments are indicative of a schism between how judges and riders perceive the scoring system.
To the judges, the scoring system is entirely fluid and changes from competition to competition.
Here is how Tom Zikas, head snowboard judge for X Games and other major contests, explained this philosophy:
“The numbers of the actual scores are more about a ranking. The numbers are a vehicle to place these riders how they should have ranked that particular day. So basically from event to event, you can’t say, ‘Well he got a 100, there’s no better run that can be done,’ because snowboarding progresses every day. So we have to adjust our range of scores to every single contest because snowboarding improves. So what is a 90 at an event one day – by the end of the season, a 90 is going to be a much better run.”
According to Zikas, the decision to award a “perfect 100” to a rider is likely the result of the judges believing it to be the best run in snowboarding history – up to that point anyway.
At the next contest, the scale is going to adjust, and that same exact run is likely to get a lower score. At least, that’s theoretically how it works.
From James’ point of view, the notion of “perfection” is not just based on that one day. In a sport where constant progression is ingrained into the culture, he seems to be suggesting that the athletes should always have something more to strive for and that “perfect scores” take away from that.
“I have openly said [to the judges] this is not what you do,” James said. “These perfect scores are great and all, but it’s not really encouraging for us when we go out there and compete. Where do you go from there?
“Shaun, if he looked at that run, he would tell you that wasn’t a perfect 100.”
In competition, just two riders have received a perfect 100: Shaun White (twice) and Chloe Kim. Part of the reason for that is because perfect scores can only be awarded on the final run of the contest. But it could also be argued that Ayumu Hirano’s 99 at X Games last month was a perfect score as well, since judges could not have given him anything higher with one rider still to go.
Despite the criticism, James also made clear that he had a lot of respect for both the judges and for White, even if he disagrees with the way the judges decided to score White at that particular event.
“He achieved a lot of amazing things in snowboarding,” James said of the two-time Olympic champion. “He has been a pioneer in the sport for a long time.”
James, White and Hirano will be the top favorites when the men’s halfpipe competition kicks off Monday night (Tuesday morning in Korea) with the qualifying round.