Why Does Olympic Ski Jumping Need Judges?

Because it's always had them--despite the fact than many athletes think the "style points" system is holding the sport back.
Germany's Carina Vogt jumps over the Olympic Rings on her second run during the women's normal hill ski jumping final at the 2014 Winter Olympics. (Charlie Riedel / AP)

When Germany’s Carina Vogt, the last jumper in the Olympic women’s ski jump final on Tuesday, clinched gold on her final run, no cheering erupted, no hands were raised, and no German flags waved. Instead, her magnificent jump was greeted by more than a minute of anticlimactic silence. NBC’s announcers offered only a subdued “Oh, is it gonna be close.”

The judges still had to fill out their score sheets.

In most objective sports, viewers can instantly recognize a good play (e.g. a home run or a touchdown) as it’s happening. This is part of what makes these sports so exciting. However, in ski jumping—a daring, high-adrenaline event one would imagine is solely based on an empirical measurement of length—this is not the case. In addition to a measure of distance traveled in the air, ski jumping also has a subjective “style points” component scored by judges—which rates each competitor’s flight, landing, and outrun (the ride down the rest of the slope after landing).

Each skier gets 60 points for hitting the average distance, known as the “K point,” plus or minus some points for how much longer or shorter they are from that mark. There are also some wind adjustments factored in. Jumpers are then awarded style points, with a perfect score being worth 20 points; there are five judges, and the highest and lowest scores are thrown out, so on average, these style points comprise around 50 percent of one’s total score. (The deviation between distances is much greater than that between style points, though, so distance is a slightly bigger factor.)

Not only does this judging sap much of the live and televised excitement, it also effectively prohibits any originality ski jumpers might have. It can force them to conform to a uniform style that can quickly become monotonous. And while judging appears to have always been part of the sport, this subjective component especially jeopardizes the sport's mass entertainment value today: It makes it impossible for spectators, both at the venue and even those watching at home on huge HD TVs, to immediately tell how a jumper fared. It doesn’t help that the disparity between the best and worst jumps—especially when viewed from the camera angle behind the skier—isn’t very discernible to the naked eye. (Thus, the loudest cheers at this Olympics haven’t really been for great jumps, but rather after huge crashes when a skier got up and confirmed his or her survival.)

It doesn’t seem like it has to be this way, though, and many of the sport’s insiders share this sentiment.

Don West, who runs SkiJumpEast.com, wrote to me via email, “Many inside the sport feel that judges are superfluous.” And according to Ueli Forrer, the Chairman of the International Ski Federation Sub-Committee for Officials and Rules, “There have always been, from time to time, discussions about the value of judging.”

However, Forrer added, “We have seen that judging is necessary for the safety of jumping. Last year the World Cup trainers have been asked about this question. They unanimously voted for keeping the system.” It seems, then, that judging is largely in place just to prevent jumpers from attempting dangerous forms. But if that’s the case, would it not be easier to simply ban certain techniques?

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Jim Pagels is a freelance writer based in Dallas. He writes regularly at Lower the Mound and has also written for Slate and Deadspin.

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