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And Justice For All

Last week Red Bull pulled together a collection of professional FMX riders and creditable industry people to help re-evaluate the current Red Bull X-Fighters judging system with the aim to come up with a fairer system that can help steer the future of freestyle motocross in a positive direction.

How many times have you been to an FMX competition and thought to yourself, "How did that rider walk away with the gold medal? There's no way he deserved to win!" Judging in any sport is often surrounded by controversy, especially at the top level where an athlete's career is at stake. One bad decision from a judge can see a rider fall out of medal/podium contention -- a scenario that not only affects the rider's income for the event, but one that also causes frustration and doubt in the system. And not forgetting denting a riders negotiating power when signing new sponsorship contracts -- like who remembers the reason why you finished 7th instead of 2nd at X Games? It's the results on paper where it counts!

One recent example is Bilko not winning gold in Best Trick at X Games 15. Many asked the same question, "How did Kyle Loza win gold with the same trick he won gold with in 2008, when Bilko executed something new and gnarly?"

Another example of judging flaw was during the last round of Red Bull X-Fighters in London, 2009. Nate Adams took the win over Levi Sherwood in the final, which was for many not a popular decision, and afterwards even Nate was surprised he'd won. Reviewing the runs, Levi looked to have the more impressive run, although he did execute many similar looking tricks, where as Nate didn't produce the run we'd all expect of him, but did have a good variation of tricks and showed good use of the course. This raised questions: Did the judges mark Levi down for a lack of variation and reward Nate for variation and use of course? How does the judging criteria work anyway?

Just how did Travis Pastrana win all those FMX battles? Was he really unbeatable or did the judging criteria in place highly reward the wow-factor a rider like Pastrana obtains?

-- Grant O'brien

According to Red Bull X-Fighters head judge Regis Harrington, "There's always going to be debate on whether Nate deserved to win or not. Personally, I didn't think he won, and what makes it harder on us is he didn't think he won. It just seemed like there was a lot of miscommunication and the judges weren't on the same page that night, and for me that's what was so frustrating, especially as we'd been working hard to improve the system."

Whether it be through human error, miscommunication, a biased decision, whatever -- one thing became very clear after the final X-Fighters round -- things needed to improve with judging before the 2010 season got underway.

Enter Red Bull X-Fighters FMX Judges Clinic, January 10-12, 2010.

Before the New Year's Eve hangovers had time to settle, Tes Sewell (Red Bull X-Fighters Sport Director) and his right-hand-make-it-happen-gal Jane Dullum, had invites emailed and flights locked in for riders and industry people from all corners of the globe to attend the judging clinic at Red Bull's Santa Monica headquarters. The aim? To review the current status of the FMX judging program for X-Fighters and deliver new guidelines for 2010.

Those attending the clinic were FMX riders Mat Rebeaud, Andre Villa, Alvaro Dal Fara, Busty Wolter, FMX rider/judge Drake McElroy, rider agents Russ Stratton (Rebeaud, Sherwood) Jimmy Button (Bilko, Nate Adams, Mike Mason, Adam Jones) and Lucas Mirtl (Jim McNeil, Libor Podmol), plus X-Fighters head judge Regis Harrington, course designer Dane Herron, and ex-riders/industry dudes Jason Moriarty (South Africa), Brody Henricksen (NZ), and myself from Australia. With all these wise heads in one room working towards one common goal, the outcome was bound to push judging in the much-needed positive direction it required.

Led by Tes and Red Bull's Performance Manager Andy Walshe, the first day of the clinic focused on an overview of judging that highlighted -- to name a few -- things like how easy it is to let something slip under the radar when judging if you're not specifically looking for it, the effects patriotism has on judging, and the "Pastrana Affect." Just how did he win all those FMX battles? Was he really unbeatable or did the judging criteria in place highly reward the wow-factor a rider like Pastrana obtains? Open discussions were also an integral part of the day's process, plus we were introduced to the proposed 2010 judging criteria, which was open for change as the two-day clinic progressed.

Nothing was left off the table. Riders had the chance to vent any frustrations they had about judging, and give feedback from a rider's perspective. The likes of Button and Stratton -- two men carrying a lot of responsibility for their own rider's future -- were sharp as a knife and didn't hold back when it came to asking questions or offering insights that would ultimately help their guys and riders in general. Regis -- the most experienced man in FMX judging (eight years) -- was put on the spot several times, but there was no finger pointing for previous mistakes -- only focus on trying to blow out the cobwebs to make way for a new solid foundation to work from in 2010.

From where I'm standing, it's clear that Red Bull is committed to taking the judging of their FMX events to the next level, a positive step forward, and one all riders, industry personal, and fans will hopefully benefit from.

-- Grant O'brien

Day two saw the attendance stripped back to the core team of possible judges for 2010. Excluding Jimmy Verburgh (Belgium), Morgan Carlson (Spain) and Jose Gaspar (Brazil), who couldn't make the clinic for one reason or another, on hand were Regis, Drake, Busty, Alvaro, Jason, Brody and myself. Tes and Andy led the day's proceedings, which saw us clarify each judging criteria and exactly what each judge will look for in a rider's run (Tes will officially release the criteria before the Red Bull X-Fighters Ranking Session gets underway). Several hours were also spent testing out the new judging criteria's using video footage of runs from previous X-Fighters competitions.

Overall, at the end of the two days, the aim of coming up with a judging system that is fairer for all riders -- one that rewards a rider who shows more variety of tricks in his run, while at the same time shows creative use of course, style, good execution, challenge, and showmanship -- was a lot closer to being achieved. For the 2010 series, each rider will have a clearer picture of how they will be judged and can tailor their runs accordingly.

And another huge step forward is the introduction of judges being accountable for their scores. Gone are the days where one judge can hide behind another. Each judge will have to back up his score so that any rider who questions it will know exactly why he lost points in any particular category, and can improve on it for the following round.

From where I'm standing, it's clear that Red Bull is committed to taking the judging of their FMX events to the next level, a positive step forward, and one all riders, industry personal, and fans will hopefully benefit from.