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.

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?

While judging may eliminate some of the excitement, it at least seems to be fair. In The Washington Post this week, Dartmouth economist Eric Zitzewitz praised ski jumping judges for their lack of bias compared to that found in figure skating judges. However, as impartial as ski-jump judges may be, they’re still far more biased than a cold, hard, laser calculation of distance.

Additionally, the style points seem largely useless, as good form is significantly correlated with distance anyways. Here are the results of the 60 jumps in the women’s final (two major outliers excluded):

In the women’s final, there was a 0.45 correlation between the style points and wind-adjusted distance points, which shows they have a strong direct relationship. And this measure includes the landing and outrun points. When one only focuses on the flight points, the correlation with distance is surely much higher. According to West, this pattern is common in most competitions.

It’s worth noting, though, that while eliminating style points would not have affected the final standings very much, it would have taken away Vogt’s gold, as her wind-adjusted distance was significantly shorter than that of silver medalist Daniela Iraschko-Stolz. Iraschko-Stolz getting a silver medal in ski jumping is somewhat similar to Usain Bolt getting silver in the 100 meters because his style-points total was lower than a guy who finished behind him.

From a spectator’s standpoint, then, it seems sensible to simply eliminate style points, base jumpers’ scores entirely on distance, and merely deduct minor points only if a skier attempts a certain dangerous form or completely wipes out on their landing. (The vast majority of skiers seem to land on their feet, so this would not be too big a factor.)

Another big improvement for spectators would be to instantly display the jumper’s distance, a common practice in speed skating, swimming, and track. Even better, TV broadcasts could have a superimposed line representing the current longest distance, similar to the yellow first-down line in the football, so fans could see mid-flight if a jumper’s trajectory is on track to pass the current leader. In the Olympics, there could be three lines: gold, silver, and bronze, showing how far one must jump to clinch each respective spot on the podium.

Ski jumping has, it’s worth noting, made massive strides as a spectator sport. According to West, a few decades ago, only the distance scores were released to the fans in attendance, and it wasn’t until hours after the competition that judges tallied up the style points and determined the winner.

Still, there’s no such thing as subjective style points in long jump, pole vault, or any other competition whose victors are determined by pure distance, height, or speed. Their end seems long overdue in ski jumping.