The imperfect 100
On the same day his peers were dropping into the halfpipe to compete at X Games Aspen in late January, Shaun White was the subject of a news release sent out by U.S. Ski & Snowboard. "Shaun White scores perfect 100.00 at Toyota U.S. Grand Prix," the subject line read. The release went on to explain that White had qualified for Pyeongchang and his fourth Olympic team with a win -- and a score of 100 -- in Snowmass, Colorado.
The words "perfect 100" appeared three times, more than the names of his U.S. teammates, Jake Pates, Ben Ferguson and Chase Josey (who was left off the release altogether).
What the release didn't say was that White had won the Snowmass event -- and earned the 100 -- two weeks earlier, and that the U.S. halfpipe team had been formally announced seven days earlier at the final Grand Prix of the season at Mammoth Mountain, a contest in which White didn't compete. (He also dropped from the X Games Aspen roster.)
But the "perfect 100" is a great storyline to ride into Pyeongchang, and U.S. Ski & Snowboard can be forgiven for hopping aboard that train. White's "perfect 100" in Snowmass was a moment, a trending topic on Twitter and a relatable event for casual snowboard fans.
There's only one problem: It wasn't perfect.
Shaun White makes it on to the U.S. Olympic Team after scoring a perfect 100 at the Grand Prix in Aspen Snowmass. https://t.co/TvINbGDxTx- TransWorld SNOWboard (@TWSNOW) January 16, 2018
"I wish people would stop calling it that," said Matthew Jennings, the head snowboard judge at the Grand Prix contests in Snowmass and Mammoth, as well as the head snowboard judge at the Olympic snowboard contests here in Pyeongchang. "It wasn't a perfect run. It was a 100. Snowboarding isn't gymnastics."
But gymnastics is partially to blame for the confusion. Until the sport did away with its 10-point system in favor of open-ended scoring in 2005, a score of 10 was meant to signify a perfectly executed routine, with a start value of 10, and thus, a "perfect 10." In 1976, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci became the first Olympic gymnast to earn the score, and her name is still synonymous with perfection.
But in snowboarding, Jennings said, a top score was never meant to be a mark of flawlessness.
Take the first 100 ever awarded at the X Games, which also went to White, in SuperPipe in 2012. White qualified first into the final and was the last rider to drop in the contest. That's an important distinction, Jennings said. Because there aren't start values, judges reserve the 100 for the final rider in a contest, which means an identical run earlier in the same contest doesn't have the opportunity to earn the score.
Although White already had the highest score of the contest and his final run was essentially a victory lap, he used the run to push his riding and land the first frontside double cork 1260, a trick he had learned earlier that week. "It was the best run we'd seen to that point in halfpipe competition," said Jennings, who was not the head judge at the event. "But he had a hand touch and a boot grab, so it wasn't perfect."
So why assign the run a 100? Why not a 99 or a 99.99?
"We reward progression," Jennings said.
And because there is no set judging scale in snowboarding, judges have the freedom to do so. Scores in snowbaording are essentially a means to a ranking, not a reflection of how the run would score in any other contest.
"An 80 at one contest might be a 90 at another," Jennings said. "It's not like aerials, where a 92 is always a 92."
The same reasoning, he said, was in play the day Chloe Kim scored a 100 at the 2016 Grand Prix in Park City, Utah. The last rider to drop, Kim landed the first back-to-back 1080s by a woman in halfpipe competition. After the contest, Kim said she was proud to have done something no woman had yet achieved, but she was embarrassed by the score.
"I barely grabbed my Cab 1080, and I only had four hits," she said. (Most riders land five or six tricks in a contest run, depending on the length of the halfpipe.) "It wouldn't have scored a 90 at other competitions."
Said Jennings: "It's the perfect situation, the perfect moment, just maybe not the perfect run."
At the 2017 World Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain, Austrian rider Anna Gasser became the first woman to land a backside 1080 double cork and the first woman to score a 100 in a big-air competition, but even she wouldn't say she'd executed the trick to perfection.
"It's situational," Jennings said of the score. "It's rewarding a rider for doing something no one has done."
Today was the heaviest day of pipe competition I have ever witnessed. Shaun took the 100 for the win but Scotty James did the most progressive run ever imho- toddrichards (@btoddrichards) January 13, 2018
Which made White's 100 in Snowmass all the more controversial. The second-to-last rider to drop in the contest, Australian Scotty James landed the first switch backside double cork 1260 (also known as a switch double McTwist) in halfpipe competition. The judges deliberated, Jennings said, and rewarded him and his debut trick with a 96.25, a tough score to beat.
"Some judges scored him a 98 and close to 99, but we still had Shaun White coming up, so we had to reserve space," Jennings said. "Nobody wanted to go up to 99."
White dropped last, and while his run did not include the switch double McTwist or a debut trick, Jennings said White's run was bigger and flashier.
"Scotty [James] had one of the most technical runs we've ever seen," Jennings said. "Shaun's was almost as technical and had more amplitude, and the judges felt we should reward him for that."
White received five 100s and one 99 -- some judges, Jennings said, refuse to use the 100 in any situation -- so when the high and low scores were tossed out, White had an average score of 100.
"Scotty came up to the judges afterward," Jennings said. "He wasn't mad he lost; he was disappointed we gave Shaun a 100. He thought it was bulls---."
At X Games Aspen two weeks later, White chose not to compete. As the defending champ, James dropped last in the contest. At the start of the third round of competition, Japanese rider Ayumu Hirano, the second-to-last rider to drop, had a 0.66 lead over James. With his final run, Hirano topped his own best score by landing the first back-to-back 1440s in a halfpipe contest. His run was technical, huge and, for lack of a better term, perfect. Had he dropped last, there is little debate the judges would have awarded Hirano with a 100. Instead, they scored him a 99, leaving room for James.
On James' final go, he landed an even loftier version of his Mammoth run, which included the switch backside double cork 1260, and earned a 98. Had Hirano fallen on his run, many folks believe the 100-happy judges would have awarded James with the score. But because snowboard scores are a means to a rank and they believed Hirano laid down the best run of the night, James settled for a 98 and silver.
Since arriving in Korea, James has been vocal about the fact that he has felt "shafted" by the judges in recent contests and used the opening week press conference to voice his frustration and educate journalists - and possibly the judges - on the difficulty of his signature trick, arguably the most difficult in snowboarding. "If Shaun looked at his run [from Mammoth], he would tell you that wasn't a perfect 100," James said.
At the U.S. press conference later in the week, White himself said as much, calling the score a highlight of his career, but saying he has a better run ready for the Olympic final.
All of this is to say that in the past month, the sport of halfpipe snowboarding has become so filled with progression and, ahem, perfection, that people are asking if more standardized judging criteria should be considered. For now, Jennings said, snowboarding's loose, first-impression judging style is what sets the sport apart. And in Pyeongchang, it could lead to more 100s, further debate and, possibly, a finish the sport has never seen.
"Say Shaun doesn't qualify first and Scotty does," Jennings said of getting the last run. "Shaun might get a 99 because we have to reserve space for Scotty. But if we feel Scotty and Shaun's runs are similar, we can tie them. In the Olympics, you can have two gold medals."
If that's the case, they should reserve a third for Hirano.