What Is Big Air? | Winter Olympic Event Guide And Preview For Pyeongchang 2018
Big Air explained. What is it? What are the judging criteria? When's it on at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang?
Big Air is a freestyle snowboarding event making its Olympic debut at Pyeongchang 2018. In layman's terms, it's a bit like ski jumping but with an emphasis on landing massive tricks rather than flying 200 metres in skin-tight lycra. It's the ultimate act of showboating in a sport which, let's face it, is no stranger to showboating.
The event debuted at the FIS Snowboard World Championships in 2003. As well as snowboarding and skiing versions (although worth noting that Ski Big Air isn't part of the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic programme), Big Air events are also common place in the worlds of skateboarding and BMX.
History Of Big Air
Big Air might be a newborn baby in Olympic terms but, of course, the history of snowboarding itself is littered with stories of snowboarders sending it off kickers in the spirit of the old "go big, or go home" mantra. Single jump competitions themselves have basically been going on since the dawn of time.
Before the Olympic bandwagon rolled into town, the biggest two Big Air contests could be found at the Air + Style series and the X Games. In men's Big Air, Canada have ruled the roost in recent years with Max Parrot and Mark McMorris winning seven X Games golds for it since 2012 (Parrot - four, McMorris - three).
Stepping away from X Games Big Air, and Canada's dominance of the male comps in that sphere, Sven Thorgren of Sweden and Marcus Kleveland of Norway as well as Yuki Kadono of Japan have all had recent success in the Air + Style Big Air events. Worth adding though, that Kadono won't actually be appearing in Pyeongchang. We have it on good authority that Kadono, and one of his team mates have been kicked off the Japanese team after being caught smoking weed and drinking.
In April of 2015, Southampton's very own Billy Morgan became the first person ever to land a Quadruple Cork. In an environment such as freestyle snowboarding, which is so often about going bigger and better than what's gone before, Billy's Quad was quite the statement and a massive boost for the British scene.
There'll be many hoping that Billy takes a gamble in Pyeongchang, stomps something massive and walks away with a snow medal for Team GB. Of course, success in Big Air competitions is nothing new to the Southampton-born snowboarder, as Billy Morgan won Bronze in Big Air at the 2016 X Games in Oslo, finishing just behind Max Parrot in second, and eventual winner Yuki Kadono.
Morgan isn't the only member of the British contingent hoping for Olympic glory in the 2018 Olympics. Aimee Fuller, Jamie Nicholls, and Rowan Coultas will all be representing Team GB in Big Air at the Pyeongchang Games. Jenny Jones, of course, was the first Brit ever to claim a medal on snow after doing enough to earn a bronze in the Sochi 2014 slopestyle.
In women's Big Air, an event that only debuted at the X Games as recently as 2017, Austrian snowboarder Anna Gasser is favourite. This status was underlined when she picked up Big Air gold at the X Games in Aspen earlier this year. From a British perspective, 19 year old Katie Ormerod was widely considered to be one of Team GB's best chances for a medal at Pyeongchang. "I’m definitely one of the contenders," Ormerod told Mpora recently, "because I got bronze at the Olympic test event big air in 2017, which boosted my confidence knowing that I could get a medal there." However, just one day before the opening Ceremony of the 2018 Olympics, Ormerod suffered a broken ankle after an accident in practice ruling her out of the games completely.
How Do You Win At Big Air?
Of course, snowboard Big Air is a new event at the 2018 Olympics, but as we’ve already seen, the event has enough history for us to have an idea how it’s won.
Let’s start by looking at what the the two stages of a big air event: qualifying and the final. There will be two Big Air Qualifiers at the Olympics, one for men, one for women. In both, riders will have two runs to get the highest score possible off a single jump. The riders with the highest score go through to the final. This, in theory, ensures that the riders with the best tricks go through to the Olympic Big Air Final.
In the Final, things get slightly more complex, but fear not, we’re going to explain the rules of Olympic Big Air simply. With medals at stake, snowboarders have three runs, doing tricks off one large jump. Their score is generated by adding their best two runs together. However, judges will only add together two scores if they are for different tricks. This is done to ensure the winning riders have a variety of skills.
For example, if on run one, a rider does a backflip and scores 50 for it, on run two also does a backflip and gets 50 points for it, and on run three does a front flip for 40 points, the judges will award the rider 90 points, for the two highest scores from different tricks. Simple, right? On the day of the final, expect to see riders put down a fairly conservative first attempt, and then go for broke on their second and third runs.
So, what trick will win Big Air at the 2018 Olympics? Despite what the event’s name suggests, it’s not always the biggest trick that wins Big Air. Depending on the conditions, and the jump’s size, the outcomes to events can be extremely varied. GB coach Hamish McKnight recently told Mpora “Assuming the conditions are that good then, at that level, it’s a 1440° (four full rotations) and a 1620° (four and a half full rotations)," with the caveat that “Though, you know, if you can’t see or the jump’s terrible then that might come down a bit and things might look a bit greyer."
Famously, although applying to the Slopestyle course, the conditions at the 2014 Sochi Olympics were not ideal for riders, and as a result, arguably saw conservative runs from the athletes involved.
During the Olympic Big Air event, you will doubtless hear the term “cork" used a lot (fear not - we’ll get onto a full breakdown of what snowboarding terms really mean a little later on). This refers to the riders going off-axis while spinning through the air, their heads and shoulders dipping beneath their hips.
"Despite what the event’s name suggests, it’s not always the biggest trick that wins Big Air"
In qualifying, expect to see Double Corks and some Triple Corks from the men. In the final, if conditions are good, we may even see some riders, including Britain’s Billy Morgan attempt a Quad Cork. However, if conditions are sub-optimal, less complex, more stylish tricks could win the day - and that’s something that suits a completely different set of snowboarders, as Hamish McKnight explains “You’ve got people in the competition capable of doing a Quad Cork, but not necessarily capable of doing a Triple, or a nice Double with a long grab. Which is why when the conditions are bad or the jump’s not quite big enough or something, you see the Norwegians doing well because they have better foundations coming up through snowboard schools."
In women’s Olympic Big Air finals, a Cab 900 (two and a half full rotations while going backwards) may be enough to get onto the podium, although a select band of riders, including favourite Anna Gasser, have landed Double Cork 1080’s (thee full spins with two off-axis dips) and we could see it attempted in the final in a bid to see who gets Olympic Gold.
How is Big Air judged
Unlike some sports that are scored on a tariff, freestyle snowboard events like Olympic Big Air are judged subjectively, so a lot of what is deemed to be good is up to the judges personal interpretation. This is both good, in so much as it is in keeping with the free-spirited nature of the sport, but is also bad as it can lead to suggestions of inconsistency and confusion in knowing precisely what the judges are looking for. Some people even claim that the snowboard slopestyle judges in Sochi 2014 changed what they were looking for mid competition. Whether or not this is true is a debate for another time, and ideally when this author is not in ear shot.
What Is The Judging Criteria For Snowboard Big Air At The Olympics
As we have already seen, the riders in Olympic Big Air will have two runs in qualifying, and those that get to the final will have three runs in which to impress the judges. So, what are the Olympic Big Air judges looking for? Each judge scores every attempt, awarding between one and 100 points, based on four criteria:
This questions how technically difficult the trick each rider performs is. As a general rule of thumb, the more spins and Corks a rider does, the harder it is, and will be rewarded with a higher score. With the race to spin and dip as much as possible potentially coming to a standstill, riders can further increase the difficult of their trick in numerous ways.
They can (and almost certainly will) add grabs to their trick (where the rider literally holds their snowboard in a certain place). The longer they hold the grab, the better, and where they grab the board can also affect the score. Taking off, and/or landing backwards - known as Switch - will also bump up the difficulty score.
Also ‘tweaking’ a trick - making it look more stylish which is done in different ways depending on the trick - will also add points to the score. Also, doing progressive tricks that no other riders are doing will also score highly.
"Before long you’ll find yourself knowing exactly what a Cab Dub Ten is"
This is how well the overall trick has been done, or is executed. A well executed trick will be done by a rider who’s in control throughout the trick (so no arms waving as if they’re winding down windows in a car) from take-off through to landing it. Grabs are a good indication of how in control a snowboarder is, and should be held for as long as possible.
Put simply, this is how big the snowboarder goes off the jump. However, going too big and missing the landing shows that they’ve miss judged it (although, given that landing like this will almost certainly hurt, the rider may not care too much in that precise moment). High amplitude scores will be awarded for going big, but also landing in the ‘sweet spot’ of the run-off.
Arguably, the hardest part of the trick. Riders must remain in control when they land their tricks, and ride away cleanly. Riders will be penalised for falling, putting a hand down, compressing so low their bum hits the ground (known as a butt-check by some) or accidentally continuing to spin once they hit the snow (known as revert).
Key Big Air terminology
If you’re new to this event, the language of snowboard Big Air can be confusing. To the uninitiated, it can sound like a jumble of the familiar and the unusual, formed into sentences that are designed to be deliberately confusing. Fear not, we’re going to cover the basics of snowboard speak, as well as covering a few essential phrases, and may even throw in a few extras so you can hold a conversation with a native snowboard speaker without feeling silly.
Regular and Goofy
This is the stance in which the snowboarders stands on their board. Regular is when the rider leads with their left foot, with their right foot trailing. Goofy is when they lead with their right foot, and have their left trailing. There is no benefit or disadvantage to either stance, it’s just whatever feels most natural to the individual. Despite sounding negative, Goofy actually derives from the Disney cartoon dog, who surfs with his right foot forward. Yes, this is the level we’re sometimes working on.
You will hear ‘Switch’ a lot. It refers to when the rider is traveling on the stance they find the least natural, so Regular riders traveling Goofy, and Goofy riders traveling Regular. This may sound simple if you’ve never tried it, but it’s essentially like doing everything backwards - a bit like writing with your weaker hand. Taking off Switch, landing Switch, or both, is harder, so adds to the difficulty points.
Cab is a lot like Switch, and is slightly confusing, so it’s included here only in the name of completion, as the term will no doubt be used. Basically, it’s the same as Switch. For those wishing to get really technical Cab is when you take off backwards and spin frontside, and Switch is when you take off backwards and spin backside. But honestly, don’t worry about it. If somebody ever pulls you up on it, be rest assured that they’re probably a pedant looking for a chance to show off that they know something nobody else really cares about.
Frontside and Backside
Frontside and Backside describe the direction in which a snowboarder spins through the air. The easiest way to picture it is by looking over either your left or right shoulder, and imagine you are on a snowboard traveling in the direction you are now looking. From that position, Frontside is when you spin so that your chest (or front) would be facing the direction of travel first. Backside is when you spin so that your back would be facing the direction of travel first.
Often, Frontside and Backside will be abbreviated simply to Front and Back.
Frontside and Backside are particularly important in Olympic Big Air, as it means a rider can do one big trick spinning one way, and a 2nd spinning the other, meeting the criteria needed by the judges of doing two different tricks.
It’s worth noting that FrontSide and Backside mean something different when referring to rail tricks like those seen in Olympic Slopestyle. However, there are no rails in Big Air, so we won’t confuse matters here.
Revert refers to a snowboarder spinning while on the ground after they’ve landed their trick. In Big Air snowboarding Revert is seen as a bad thing, and points will be deducted from riders who do it.
Kicker is the name often given to the actual jump that the riders fly off during the Olympic Big Air competition. It is sometimes also known as a Booter or a Cheese Wedge
"Some grabs are deemed poor form, or even illegal in Snowboarding and will see judges deduct points"
The Knuckle is area after the jump, when the terrain goes from being horizontal to sloping down to become the landing. Landing on the knuckle not only shows poor execution, but also hurts like hell.
Flat or Flat Bottom
If the knuckle comes before the landing, the Flat - sometimes called Flat Bottom comes after it. Similarly, landing on the Flat will cause judges to deduct points, and the waiting medical staff to leap to their feet.
A Safety Run is when a rider attempts to land a more conservative trick to ensure they get a good score on the board, ahead of trying more difficult runs later on. With the Final of Olympic Big Air being a ‘three run - best two count’ format, expect many riders to have a Safety Run on their first go, before unleashing more spectacular tricks on runs two and three.
You will hear the term, Cork, and specifically Double Cork, Triple Cork, and Quad Cork a lot during Big Air. A Cork is an off-axis spin where the riders head and shoulders dip below their hips while they’re spinning through the air. It’s widely believed that Corks will win the Big Air competition, with only a few riders, Britain's Billy Morgan among them, who have ever successfully landed a Quad Cork. However, Norway's Marcus Kleveland is the only rider to have successfully landed it in competition. If conditions are right in Pyeongchang, expect an arms race.
Often, Cork tricks are abbreviated, dropping the word "cork" completely. So a Double Cork becomes a Double (or even Dub), A Triple Cork becomes a Triple (or sometimes Trip), and so on.
"Cork" derives from the word Corkscrew from back when a Single Cork was the trick du jour, and was done sufficiently slowly to be able to see what was actually happening.
Rotation is the amount of degrees a snowboarder spins through the air. They’re measured in units of 180° which the fans of protractors among you will know is half a full turn. It’s rare to see rotations anything under 540° in Big Air competitions but in the Men’s competition in particular, they can go as far as 1440° (four full rotations), 1620° (four and a half full rotations) and some are even suggesting the Pyeongchang Big Air jump may allow for enough air time to see an 1880° rotation.
In snowboarding, it’s common for people to refer to rotations more simply, by knocking off the last two numbers. As such, a 180° becomes a One. A 900° is a Nine. A 1620° is a Sixteen etc.
Add to this the other variants we’ve already learnt, and before long you’ll find yourself knowing exactly what a Cab Dub Ten is.
A Flat Spin is mercifully simple to understand, and refers to when a snowboarder rotates through the air without dipping into a Cork. Flat Spins are very stylish tricks and Norwegian rider Stale Sandbech, in particular, is a master.
A Grab is when a rider grabs their board with their hand or hands. This is done to add style, and shows the judges that they are in control of their trick. Some grabs are harder than others, some are more stylish than others, and some suit certain tricks more than others. Common grabs you’ll hear are Mute, Inde, Stalefish, Melon, and Tail. More complex grabs you may hear are Crail, Japan, Roast Beef and Chicken Salad. There are also some even more obscure grabs that are more complex than an experimental Radiohead remix album, but may just crop up once in a blue moon. These include grabs like a Bloody Dracula, Crystal Method and a Cookie Monster, the latter of which actually involved biting your board.
Some grabs are deemed poor form, or even illegal in snowboarding and will see judges deduct points. These include Tindy, Tailfish, and Boot grabs.
Grabs are a subjective thing, but the almost universally accepted King of grabs is a Method, owing to how stylish it looks when performed well. However, it’s unlikely this will be seen in Olympic Big Air as it is not conducive to doing lots of slips and spins.
Advanced Snowboard Terminology
Other terminology you may hear while watching the Olympic Big Air in Pyeongchang is “Stoked", which means very happy, “Huck it" or “Send it" which means throw caution to the wind and try a big trick, “Tranny" which is the transition from flat to an angle (such as a take off), “Gnarly" which is something that’s so frightening that it's impressive, and “Sketchy" which is something that’s dangerous. Liberally sprinkle the above into conversation, and you’ll be speaking like a snowboarder in no time. Radical!
Big Air Venue At Pyeongchang 2018
At the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, the Big Air will take place at the Alpenis Ski Jumping Centre. It’s a newly built arena, created specifically for the Pyeongchang Winter Games, and the construction houses the largest Big Air ramp in the world. The total height of the jump is a staggering 49 metres, with a maximum slope angle of 40° which, in theory, allows riders more air-time than any other competition jump in which to show off their moves.
Traditionally, big air jumps are built in one of two ways. The first is to build a huge jump on a slope that already exists - the side of a mountain being the very obvious choice. It’s a method often used by the X Games, the benefit of which is that a lot of the work is already done for you by nature.
The second is when the entire ramp, jump, and landing are constructed out of scaffolding. This method is often used at the FIS World Cup and Air + Style events, the benefit being that you can put the event anywhere, including in city centres.
The Olympic Big Air jump in Pyeongchang is somewhat of a combination of the two techniques. The launch ramp will be built on scaffolding to give it the elevation high in the air that it needs to give the riders the speed to shoot off the jump. The landing, however, uses the natural terrain as well as the structure of the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre. This new-style hybrid construction will, it’s hoped, combine the best of both worlds.
Where and when to watch the Big Air at the 2018 Olympics In The UK
The Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics will be shown live on BBC One and BBC Two in the UK. You’ll be able to stream the winter Olympics online in realtime and catch up with full broadcasts on BBC iPlayer.
Women’s Snowboard Big Air Qualifiers will take place on Monday 19th, starting at 09.30 Korean time which is 00.30 in the morning UK time.
Men’s Snowboard Big Air Qualifiers will take place on Wednesday 21st, starting at 09.30 Korean time which is 00.30 in the morning UK time.
Women’s Snowboard Big Air Finals will take place on Friday 23rd, starting at 09.30 Korean time which is 00.30 in the morning UK time. The Women’s Snowboard Big Air Medal Ceremony will follow immediately after the final.
Man’s Snowboard Big Air Finals will take place on Saturday 24th, starting at 10.00 Korean time which is 01.00 in the morning UK time. The Men’s Snowboard Big Air Medal Ceremony will follow immediately after the final.
Words by James Renhard and Jack Clayton