ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — Ayumu Hirano saved his best for last. By doing so, the Japanese rider might have saved snowboarding from a good, old-fashioned judging mess.
Hirano linked his trendsetting, once-thought-impossible triple-cork trick to four more rock-solid jumps to win gold on the Olympic halfpipe Friday. That gave him a score of 96 and vaulted him in front of Australian Scotty James to take the title that has barely eluded him at the last two Winter Games.
With that run, controversy was averted.
Social media and analysts were up in arms after Hirano's second-run score failed to top James despite a performance that included the ground-breaking triple cork (essentially three head-over-heels spins while twisting above the pipe).
Even Hirano was a little taken aback.
"No one is doing a routine with the triple cork, and the difficulty level was pretty high, and so I did think it was a little odd," the 23-year-old Hirano said of his score being 91.75, which trailed James' 92.5. “But that worked out in a good way, that anger, for my third run. I think that emotion made me focus even better than usual.”
A runner-up at the last two Winter Games, Hirano kept his composure even as the sparse crowd booed the lower score. The fans on hand weren't alone.
“That is quite possibly the worst judging I've ever seen,” tweeted 2018 bronze medalist Arielle Gold.
"I know when I’ve seen the best run that’s ever been done in the halfpipe. ... It’s a travesty to be completely honest with you. I’m irate,” NBC snowboard analyst Todd Richards said on the telecast.
Back at the top for the final run — after James didn't improve on his score — Hirano, as the last rider of the competition, executed the same run from earlier to near perfection. His score came up. A big mess was averted.
“The judges were lucky that Ayumu landed that,” said Donna Burton Carpenter, wife of the late founder of Burton snowboards. “Oh my God. I don't even want to think about what would've happened.”
Hirano, whose second-place run in Pyeongchang fell 2.5 points short of White even though it included the same combo of back-to-back 1440 spins, found himself in position for a third silver medal before coming up big.
This wasn't the first time the judging at Genting Snow Park has come under scrutiny. Even as the halfpipe contest was wrapping up, there was still buzz over marks given in Monday's men's slopestyle competition. In that one, Max Parrot of Canada took gold ahead of Su Yiming of China and Mark McMorris of Canada.
Some replay angles appeared to show Parrot grabbing his lower leg instead of his board on a trick, which could've meant a deduction. The head judge said the judging panel didn't have a camera angle that clearly showed Parrot's grab.
“Well, basically, we judged what we saw,” Iztok Sumatic told the snowboarding website Whitelines. “And what we saw was a grab and a well-executed switch frontside 16 – from the point of view of a camera that we were given.”
James knows the feeling of a trick not getting all the credit it might deserve. He had a similar experience at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, where he wound up with bronze despite throwing a difficult technical trick called the switch backside double 1260.
On Friday, that trick and his second-round run received all sorts of love — maybe even, to some, too much considering Hirano's triple-cork performance wasn't scored as high.
“I was really happy and thrilled to put that down,” James said.
Then along came a fired-up Hirano, who has been working on the triple cork since stepping off his skateboard — he also competed in that sport's Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games — and back onto the snow.
And to think, he thought the trick might be too demanding. That is, until he started landing it. He knew it could be a winner and definitely would push the sport forward — much the way Shaun White had for decades before him.
A big fan of White, Hirano trotted the trick out at White's “retirement party.” The 35-year-old White finished fourth in his final Olympic appearance.
White leaves knowing this next generation is still pushing the progression. As for the upper limit of the boundaries in the pipe, bronze medalist Jan Scherrer of Switzerland may have summed it up perfect: “Good question."
"I don't think there's going to be a quadruple corks,” Scherrer cracked.
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