Passing Judgment: Ingemar Backman

Jeff Curtes

This photo of Ingemar Backman is not only one of the most iconic images in snowboarding history, it is a definitive portrait of "good style." When this man speaks on the subject, listen.

Calling out the proliferation of double and triple corks in snowboarding competition as a sure sign of an impending style apocalypse has become quite the rage these past few years. The contention is that "spinning to win" is what they do in ice skating and aerial skiing, and snowboarders don't want to go down the road where the number of rotations one does trumps what the person looks like while he or she is doing it.

It's a valid point -- one that many of the riders who are throwing these tricks even agree with. And therein lies the paradox. Because the sport seems to be sprinting down the road to triple-lutz glory anyway, with X Games and Olympic medals waving in hand.

Yet snowboarders who compete do it because they want to win. If it takes a multi-cork to get to the top of a podium? They will throw it. But who determines what a "winning trick" is? Is it the riders?

No, it's the judges.

In the first round of the Air & Style big air competition in Beijing last year, all but two competitors threw double-cork variations for their first trick. Outraged by the lack of creativity in a contest beloved specifically for the innovation it has inspired in snowboarding over the past two decades, I penned a column about it. Much to my surprise, one of the judges -- the legendary Ingemar Backman -- reached out directly to talk about it.

There are but a handful of people qualified to truly talk about style in snowboarding contests. I am not one, but Backman is. On the eve of another Air & Style in Beijing, and the beginning of a competition season where multi-cork tricks will be the ones most talked about, Backman (who is not judging in Beijing this year) offered his take on the matter. The following is all his words:

I have been judging events like the Air & Style since I stopped competing. Since the double cork became standard, and riders like Nicolas Müller, Mikkel Bang and Travis Rice stopped entering contests, I have been so bored watching them.

Competitive snowboarding is somewhere between skateboarding and freestyle skiing. The future looks like it's more going toward freestyle skiing, with too much focus on the Olympics, and with the FIS making all the rules. I grew up as a skater and I'm way more stoked to see how skateboarders have kept control of their sport. Skateboarding is huge, and also older, but it still looks like most events and companies in skateboarding are run by old skaters.

We always used to make fun of the old-school, hot-dog freestyle skiers doing triple flips with fish-stick style. Today we can't make fun of them anymore. We became the new version of them.

"I wish the riders talked more ... They have a lot of power, they just forget to use it."

During the past five years I have only been really stoked once. It was at the Air & Style in Munich when Halldor Helgason was riding. He was so fun to watch, hucking backside double rodeos with Japan chicken wings like there was no tomorrow. All the riders were stoked to see him ride.

Also, when Sage Kotsenburg did his Japan tweak in his double corks at the Air & Style in Beijing last year, he was the one everyone was stoked to watch.

I hope competitions can start to award this more so they will be more fun to watch. Not just for riders but also for all the spectators showing up -- they came to see snowboarding, NOT freestyle skiing.

I have never been a head judge, so I have not been able to change much. I tried a few times to communicate with email but had no luck. If was head judge (or am one day), I would talk to the event organizers and riders to come up with a new system that's more fun for the riders and the crowd.

I would like to see big air judges judge the trick, style and landing, and forget about the size. We should have a computer that calculates the time riders spend in the air. This could just be added to the judges' score. That would be easy for everyone to understand.

There is a big difference between watching a contest live, up close, and watching it on a screen. Peetu Piiroinen [won the round against Kotsenburg] because he went a lot bigger. On a screen it didn't look like there was much difference, so if we were judging from that Sage would have won. But judging live, Peetu won. It was a difficult decision.

For now we are stuck deep in the spin-to-win cork trend. The riders have even learned to rotate quicker on the triple corks so they can do them in smaller jumps, holding the grab in meatball position with maximum rotation.

Courtesy Air & Style

In case you still doubt Backman's authority on the subject, here he is in 1998, on his way to becoming the first rider to snag two Air & Style victories.

Don't get me wrong, I'm really impressed with how good all the riders are today. Ten-year-olds are doing tricks I never could do. Most of the top riders have so much control so when they are just cruising doing 180s and 540s, it looks really stylish.

But when the contest is on, the style is gone.

Once, when I was in an Air & Style super-final everybody was spinning for the win. I decided to go for a switch backside 180 instead of the win. I got third place, but I was stoked, and so were the people in the crowd and the event organizers. The next year they made all the riders do a mandatory "style trick" at the contest: a trick with maximum 540 rotation.

Changes like that are good for keeping snowboarding alive.

I think one problem is that event organizers listen too much to what TV stations and sponsors are saying. It would be better if they listened to the riders. They are the ones who know the most.

But the riders (mostly kids) these days are so quiet, nice and professional. At all the rider meetings they just listen and do what they've been told, like other sports. At the rider's meeting in Beijing last year we asked how they wanted to be judged and they were all quiet. One rider then said "air" and another "style" -- since it was "Air & Style."

Back when I was riding we made our voices heard, and spoke out about everything we didn't like. There were a lot of us voicing our opinions, and we made sure event organizers changed things to be the way we liked -- even at the big events.

I wish the riders talked more -- with the judges and the event organizers. It has to be the riders who decide the direction snowboard contests go in. They have a lot of power, they just forget to use it. They are so talented, and they have personalities that are almost never shown in competitions.

I see more personality in cross-country skiing than in a big air event today. Something has to be changed so snowboarding goes in the right direction.

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