Olivero: X Games Aspen new competition format an experiment in scoring

Elite athletes have differing opinions on whether they like 'jam' style

Chris Corning competes in the men’s snowboard big air elimination round at X Games Aspen on Friday at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen.
Liz Copan /

ASPEN — It’s not often that there’s a competition in sports without a transparent scoring or timing system. This week at X Games Aspen has been a case study — an experiment, almost — in how competitions can go for athletes and audience alike when there is no explicit scoring for the competitors and fans to reference during and after contests.

X Games Aspen opted for a “jam” competition format for this year’s event. Essentially that meant all athletes in skiing and snowboarding competitions ran through the big air, slopestyle or superpipe courses one after the other for a set amount of time. Once the clock expired, any athletes who had not had their chance in that round of runs got a final opportunity to have the same amount of attempts as the other competitors.

As the jam clock counted down, and after each athlete finished each run during the overall timed round, the X Games broadcast updated an unofficial top-to-bottom ranking of the active athletes. On top of that, the scoreboard only presented the order of the athletes, sans transparent scoring. The athletes were scored based on what the X Games described as “overall impression” instead of having an explicit score on the screen.

“Overall, we are happy with how the competitions flowed,” X Games Vice President Tim Reed said in a statement Sunday night. “We were able to deliver a lot more action to our fans and highlight the remarkable skills and talents of the best action sports athletes in the world. We’ll take a look at all of the shows and as we do with all aspects of our business we’ll look to continue to evolve in the future and make the necessary tweaks.”

In the past X Games has used a jam format for some competitions, such as the big air. But in those years, athletes and fans saw scores for each jump flash up on the screen next to the athletes’ rank. This year, the jam format was brand-new for slopestyle and superpipe. Traditionally, those competitions have operated in the Olympic style. That traditional Olympic and World Cup format has a set number of attempts for each athlete, typically two or three. Athletes then typically have one or two specific runs count toward their score. They see their score after each attempt.

The change in this year’s scoring and competition format had mixed reviews from the athletes. On the positive side, men’s snowboard slopestyle gold medalist Darcy Sharpe said he thought the change allowed for more creativity and opportunity for athletes to mess up somewhere on the course and not worry about it instantly tanking their chances.

“I have stayed true to this from the start,” the Canadian star said. “I absolutely love the format. It’s insane. It’s like, when I was a kid I would get post-X Games depression. Straight up, I’d be like so sad. There’d be two runs done, and I’d be like, ‘no. It’s over already.’ Now, you get to watch riding the whole contest. If somebody falls, they can still do tricks. And I think it gives us a mindset of, like, practice is funner. You’re not just doing one line practicing the same thing over and over again like a little robot.”

Sharpe’s result in the new format may have been the most interesting and surprising of the entire X Games. After three runs, Sharpe was in dead-last entering his final run. After a great run, he soared into first. The unofficial scoreboard flashed the change seconds after the guy who was in first, Red Gerard of Summit County, dropped in for his run seemingly unaware of the score change.

Afterward, Gerard said he wasn’t giving the score or format too much thought. His bigger focus was staying in the moment, not worrying about the score and riding as well as he could. He ended up with a bronze medal.

Darcy Sharpe’s older sister Cassie Sharpe won a bronze in ski superpipe after landing a final run some thought, in the moment, may have been enough to leapfrog her over Kelly Sildaru for gold. Afterward, Cassie Sharpe echoed a sentiment of many athletes this week, including Canadian Mark McMorris — who took silver in big air Saturday night — and Summit County snowboarder Chris Corning. Without explicit scores, she said, it’s hard to know what exactly you need to do or what else you should have done.

“You get variation, you get all these things that are amazing with it,” Cassie Sharpe said, “But they don’t have a solid way of saying you need to do this to win. It’s kind of like you’re blind.”

After Corning excruciatingly missed the cut for the snowboard big air final, he put it in context from his perspective, saying he and his U.S. Snowboard Team Coaches Mike Ramirez and Dave Reynolds didn’t know what the judges wanted.

“It’s really hard, because you don’t know where you’re sitting,” Corning said. “You know you’re under them, but you don’t know how far you are under them.”

In terms of the new format helping with progressing snowboarding and freeskiing, there was differing opinions from two U.S. athletes. On one hand, American Maggie Voisin, who took a bronze medal in ski slopestyle Sunday, said she felt the traditional format forces progression more because she thinks focusing on one run pushes athletes further. American halfpipe freeski star Aaron Blunck of Crested Butte thinks the new format makes athletes have to be more versatile.

“We get so caught up with that one-run format,” Blunck said, “so everyone works for that one run. It’s really cool to be able to go into it all and do everything and change who you are as a skier and show who you are at the same time.”

Aspen Times Sports Editor Austin Colbert and Steamboat Pilot & Today Sports Editor Shelby Reardon contributed reporting.

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