If last week's International Ski Federation (FIS) fall meetings in Switzerland are a fair indication, the famously rigid world governing body appears to be entrusting a crucial element of freeskiing's 2014 Olympic debut -- the judging -- to the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP), an independent group of elite competitors and industry leaders.
"They (AFP) have a bit more experience in the higher-end contests, so we're really looking to them for direction," said Jay Simson, who holds the lone American vote on the FIS freestyle skiing committee. "The FIS is contracting out, or using the AFP to provide the training and evaluation of the judges."
Over the next month, AFP judges have been commissioned to lead clinics in France, Norway, Canada and the U.S. on how to judge slopestyle and halfpipe competitions. "It's a clinic and a test," said AFP co-founder Michael Spencer, who spent last week at the FIS meetings inside Zurich's Airport Hilton Hotel. "We're trying to identify which judges are capable of judging. At the highest level, you can't have anyone who doesn't know what a particular trick is."
The fact that the FIS is relying so heavily on the AFP represents an early victory for the athletes, who have openly worried about how they'll be judged at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. It was among the first topics AFP reps brought up when they started talking with FIS reps after pipe and slope were added to the Olympics this summer. "We kind of said, 'Hey, we have a judging system that we've used for 10 years. Let's start there,'" AFP judging director and co-founder Josh Loubek said.
Loubek and five other AFP judges had already been "grandfathered in" as "Level A" FIS freestyle judges last winter, which allowed them to judge slope and pipe at the FIS World Championships in Utah. That process was initiated by the AFP, as they were able to talk the FIS out of using aerials/moguls judges for the park and pipe events and convince them to instead use AFP judges, all of whom are former elite competitors. "Really, we're just puppets for the athletes," Spencer said in explaining the motivation to make moves like that.
In Zurich, Loubek gave a presentation on how he plans to train FIS freeski judges, which was reportedly well received by the other nations in attendance. "Ultimately, that's what we all want: Who are the most qualified people we can put on the stand?" said Simson, who is also vice chairman of the FIS rules and officials committee. "And that's going to be the AFP's job. We're trying to give them as much responsibility as possible to take that on."
How, exactly, do Loubek and his colleagues plan to evaluate the world's judges? "First we'll go over our overall philosophy -- why we need to keep it progressive so it doesn't turn into moguls and aerials," he said. "Then we'll do some video trick identification, a simple, 'Hey, do you know what that trick is?' Then we'll test their short-term memory and explain how to score an actual run."
The last part of the test will involve showing the FIS judges videotaped runs and seeing how closely their scores match up with the scores AFP judges awarded. "Blending progression and consistency is the hardest thing to do," said Loubek, who's been head judge at the Winter X Games for nearly a decade. "And that's what we're trying to do. It may be impossible, but we're going to try."
With regard to scoring, Loubek said they're going to push to maintain overall-impression scores on a 100-point scale, just like the Dew Tour and X Games. Ironically, the element that could look most different from an AFP event at the 2014 Olympics is the judging panel itself. The snowboard panel for Sochi has already been set by the FIS, but the freeskiing panel remains open due to the starting-from-scratch factor. (There have been rumors of a possible combined panel of ski/snowboard judges, but nobody interviewed on either the ski or snowboard side believed that would happen in this Olympic cycle. "The athletes on both sides have made their case very well to have separate panels of experts for snowboard and skiing," Simson said.)
Per FIS rules, each country gets to nominate one or two judges for the Olympics, then a FIS selection committee makes the actual picks, Simson said. There has been no indication AFP judges would have any advantage in that selection process. Once the panel has been picked, those judges will then judge the 2013 FIS World Championships in Voss, Norway, as a test run for Sochi.