Slopestyle judging questions, sense of underachievement‎ linger over Mark McMorris’ bronze, Canada’s first medal

The first Canadian medal in Sochi came Saturday, with snowboarder Mark McMorris picking up bronze in slopestyle, but it will still leave many disappointed given the higher hopes that were out there. Fellow Canadians Max Parrot and Seb Toutant shone in qualifying but came up short in the final, which will bother some considering the way they trash-talkedShaun White earlier, and while McMorris battled through a broken rib and a trip through an extra heat to win a medal, some won't be thrilled that one of Canada's biggest names at these Olympics could only collect a bronze in a discipline he's dominated for years. The judging is also being questioned by some, as McMorris took issue with the low initial qualifying score that forced him into another qualifying round Saturday only shortly before the final, and the run he laid down in the final seemed more technically-challenging on a few fronts than those posted by gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg of the U.S. or silver medalist Staale Sandbech of Norway. Add it all up, and it's a result that's going to leave many Canadians upset despite the medal McMorris won.

First, there's the sense of underachievement, and that certainly has some merit. While slopestyle was making its Olympic debut in Sochi, McMorris and Parrot have been amongst the world's best in the discipline for years, and Toutant has also proven impressive in it. The data-based predictions from Infostrada Sports had McMorris and Parrot favoured to win gold and silver respectively in slopestyle, part of the overall haul of 33 medals the site predicted, and that certainly seemed plausible following Thursday's qualifying heats. There, Parrot threw down a dazzling 97.5 that wound up being the highest slopestyle mark at these games, while Toutant also impressed with an 87.25 that earned him an automatic berth to the final. McMorris didn't directly qualify, but he didn't miss it by much, and given his skill and experience, he seemed a good bet to work his way in and then do well in the final. (It's worth discussing if things would have changed if McMorris had scored higher in qualifying, too; without having to do an extra two runs with his broken rib only an hour before the final, would he have done better in the end?)

It was that qualifying round Thursday that first led to judging questions, too. McMorris notched an 89.25 there (which was actually better than Toutant, but in a heat with more high scorers), which was good but not good enough to finish top-four in his heat, and he went off on the judges afterwards:

The Regina native lashed out at the “ridiculous” judging after placing seventh in Thursday’s qualifying session at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, the first official action for these Olympics.

“It’s hurting mentally right now more than anything,” a clearly dejected McMorris, one of Canada’s top medal hopes, said afterwards. “I didn’t get the score I wanted. I didn’t think my run was much different than anybody else. It sure as heck wasn’t sketchy. It felt really solid and clean.

“It’s pretty ridiculous, but it’s a judged sport, what can you do?”

One would imagine that judging debate is going to be brought up again after the final, and something that will be particularly featured is the degree of difficulty argument. McMorris' signature trick is the triple cork, which he became the first rider to land in the X Games in 2011, and it's a very difficult trick. The cork, or corkscrew, is a spin variation that involves the boarder going sideways or upside down during the spin; a triple cork means there are three separate instances of that during one spin. The triple cork is only a relatively recent trick, but it's become huge in the sport; Transworld Snowboarding's Gerhard Gross wrote earlier this week that the slopestyle competition in Sochi would be "The triple cork games." He proved right, but not in the way he thought; McMorris failed to win despite throwing down two triple corks on his final run, while Kotsenburg scored much higher despite only going as high as a double cork.

That leads to a debate similar to what we've seen in figure skating over the quad: do you need to have the biggest, most complicated trick in your arsenal to win, or can a smoother performance with less technical tricks do the job? The X Games' scoring has generally favoured the former, as McMorris' triple cork was key to his 2013 win and Parrot did back-to-back triple corks to win in 2014, but the Olympic scoring seems to have gone a different way. There's a case to be made for the final results; while Kotsenburg's run didn't have as massive tricks, it appeared more fluid as a whole, while McMorris' came with the two big triple corks, but seemed slightly off in a few spots. Overall form versus technical difficulty is a long-running debate with adherents on both sides, and one that's unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

However, there's also the question of inconsistency. Gross had another interesting piece on the judging following Thursday's qualifiers, and while it includes McMorris talking about how he didn't feel the judges gave him enough credit for his triple cork, it also has some very notable quotes from eventual champion Kotsenburg:

Moments earlier Sage Kotsenburg had a similar experience as he waited for his second run score. He had just stepped up his jump line to include a super-tweaked backside double cork 1260 japan and the run was a clear improvement from his first where he only did a backside double cork 1080 on the last jump. Yet somehow he only scored an 81.50, a full five points less than his first run.

“I went way bigger,” Sage as he tried to understand why his score was so low. “I thought my rail section was way better too. But they [the judges] just weren’t down I guess.”

Sage added that he felt the judging was all over the place this season. “Sometimes they’re super down for the stuff and sometimes there not,” he said. “I don’t know, it’s crazy here. I don’t really know what they want to see. I need to re-evaluate, I guess.”

Kotsenburg clearly was able to find what the judges were looking for Saturday, while McMorris wasn't able to quite get there. Whether that's a travesty or not depends on your perspective on triple corks, but it seems highly likely that this is going to lead to a long debate. What's less debatable is that the final results here aren't great for Canada. The first medal of the Games is nice, and McMorris deserves a ton of credit for managing to grab it despite his injury and his tough path there (afterwards, he said he'd "been on a roller-coaster the past two weeks"), but the expectations for Canada in slopestyle were a lot higher, especially following the initial qualifying runs and trash-talking comments from Parrot and Toutant. Thus, although it's Canada's first medal in Sochi, and although McMorris said afterwards "To get on the podium is just a dream come true," the overall slopestyle results may come with more disappointment and debate than joy for many Canadian fans.