The Winter Olympics: A Judge’s Story

This weekend GB’s own Gaz Vogan will begin his work judging the snowboard freestyle events at the 2022 Winter Games.  He is the only Briton selected for the 10-man judging panel. He’s written this account for PlanetSKI about the life and work of a judge. Part One: Being a Judge.

The 2022 Winter Olympics are going to see the best snowboarding ever at an Olympic Games.  There is no question about that.

The level of riding is at an all-time high across the three disciplines: Slopestyle, Big Air and Halfpipe.

What you will see from the likes of Ayumu Hirano and Scotty James, among others, will be off the scale.

It’s a shame there’s not going to be many spectators as it looks like it’s definitely going to be a crazy show!

I’ll cover how we judge the freestyle events in part two – and I should say that the principles are the same for judging snowboarding and freestyle skiing.

The atmosphere here in Beijing is pretty incredible – the vibe from the athletes and coaches is certainly getting everyone excited about the Games.

It’s a strange situation. We’re living in a very tight closed-loop bubble, which is very strict.

We have to get bussed between venues and we’re not allowed to walk anywhere.

I go out to all the training days. It’s what we do as judges so we know what to expect from the athletes’ runs.

Snowboard slopestyle training at Beijing 2022- photo © Gaz Vogan

But, first things first.

How did I end up judging snowboarding at the planet’s biggest winter sports and what has the build-up to these Games been like?

I started judging in 2015 and was quickly fast-tracked to judge on the FIS World Cup tour in 2018.

Since then, I’ve spent the winters on the road travelling between competitions to evaluate the various tricks and runs that the best snowboarders in the world have been throwing down.

Judges at a World Cup – photo © Gaz Vogan

Travelling the world purely to watch and judge the globe’s best snowboarders is an incredible experience – and it still amazes me that it’s what I get to do, particularly when opportunities like the Olympics open up.

I seem to spend an impossible amount of time in airports and hotel rooms – and more recently, being tested for Covid.

We go through some pretty strict testing before World Cups to make sure we’re safe to enter the competition bubble, and then get tested every couple of days.

At the Olympics it’s been a whole new level.

We had to test twice before boarding our flight, then again in Beijing airport and we will do a PCR test every day to stay in our tight bubble.

Sadly, we get paid terribly, which is disheartening when we’re under a lot of pressure, particularly at competitions like the Olympics.

It means we all need second or third jobs to have some form of financial stability.

Some of the judges work full-time jobs and can take only 2 or 3 weeks off a year to travel and judge.

I’m one of the very few judges to commit to a full season of World Cups and I spend 12 to 13 weeks of each winter on the road, which causes a lot of stress in the summer when there are no competitions.

Gaz at the Laax Open in Switzerland – photo © Gaz Vogan

I have been surprised how draining it is being on the road away from friends and family, often for 3 or 4 weeks at a time.

In the build-up to the Olympics, I spent a few weeks hibernating and avoiding seeing anyone, just avoiding being positive for Covid.

My test in Beijing airport when I landed here was my 52nd PCR test.  I’m surprised that 51 of those have all been negative (I had a false positive in Mammoth a few weeks ago).

But they’re the only ‘downsides’ to being a snowboard judge.

I’m incredibly grateful that I was still able to travel in the 2020-21 season in the height of the pandemic when everyone else was in lockdown.

I’m in a very fortunate position where I can spend 3 or 4 months visiting beautiful places with a great bunch of friends and make an impact on the sport I’ve loved since I was 13.

Down time © Gaz Vogan

The build-up to the Olympics officially started in Saas Fee in Switzerland back in the autumn, when a lot of the athletes were on training camps on the glacier.

We suddenly started seeing this huge rush of new tricks being landed, such as triples in the halfpipe!  That’s where the hips go over the rider’s head three times within in the trick.

This really set the tone for the season, and the level of excitement on the World Cup Tour has been steadily increasing as we got closer to the Games.

The level of communication between judges and coaches and athletes has also increased a lot.

We always try to communicate as much as we can with the coaches so we’re on the same page as they are. But this season the coaches have been very analytical of our scores, to help them plan their training – and eventually their athletes’ runs – ahead of the Olympics.

In the last few competitions of the season, we’ve seen some really progressive snowboarding, and riders starting to reveal some of the tricks they’ve been keeping ‘secret’ during the season.

The Laax Open Halfpipe Final was an amazing spectacle – and the first time since the last Olympics that we’ve seen Ayumu Hirano, Scotty James, Shaun White and Yuto Totsuka all compete against each other.

You could sense the buzz in the air before finals, and it did not disappoint.

The last World Cup Big Air of the season was in Steamboat, Colorado, before Christmas – and the level of difficulty was absolutely insane.

Now I’m in Beijing and ready for competition to get under way.

Ready for the action at Beijing 2022 – photo © Gaz Vogan

The first action is the the Snowboard Slopestyle on Saturday 5th, Sunday 6th and Monday 7th February, starting with the women’s qualification runs on Saturday and ending with the men’s final on Monday.

In part two, I’ll explain what we as judges will be looking for and how we score the runs in Slopestyle, Big Air and Halfpipe.

Our decisions will determine who will be your next Winter Olympic Champions and who will join them on the podium.

If you want to know more about the behind-the-scenes stories from competitions, head over to gazvogan.com where I’ve started to publish various blog articles about my travels. Over on Instagram (@gazvogan) I’ll be publishing plenty of content from the training days and the whole Olympic experience, so definitely check that out. If you want to know more – then drop me a DM on Instagram!