Words by Gaz Vogan
As a judge on the FIS Snowboard World Cup tour, I’m one of those jammy bastards that has been able to travel the globe for snowboarding this season. Covid has meant the tour has been more intense, more stressful and yet more liberating than in previous seasons. I’m here to tell you all about it - What’s new? What’s changed?
First-up; we’ve lost World Cups left, right and centre since the start of this pandemic, it’s been really disappointing. Our season normally kicks off dodging sheep in New Zealand, before quickly nipping to Italy to sample the pasta, onto Beijing for some Peking Duck, then Copper Mountain for some good old fashioned ‘Murica. In the New Year it's like a large continental breakfast [could this para get more British?], with a mini-tour to Austria, Switzerland and Italy, before jumping back across the Atlantic for a little bit of Colorado heaven and the Calgary chills. This season though, I didn’t even get to pack my snowboard bag until the dumpster fire that was 2020 had finished.
I used to get so HYPED about being selected for World Cup events (I remember shaking with excitement when I was selected for my first trip to China), but the amount of emails I’ve had this year that start with “We’re sorry, but we’re going to cancel the contest…” mean that I now wait until 48 hours before the first flight (when I’ve taken my Covid test) to allow myself to get excited and feel those good vibrations about going snowboarding. This year has been full of ups and downs; disappointment surrounding cancellations and the ever-present uncertainty of these strange times. This winter I’ve also had more orifices abused by foreign objects than ever before...
To be clear, I don’t like having sticks forced up my nose in the hopes of finding a brain in my skull - all evidence suggests this is unlikely. But it’s a necessary evil that I’ll happily take on the chin (or nose) if it lets me have just one run through waist deep powder. So I sit back, and let some Austrian or Swiss nurse go to town on my nasal cavities and just sink in to the thought: “holy f*ck, I’m actually going snowboarding”.
With each competition, we get tested 48 hours before arrival into the ‘bubble’, the day after we get into the bubble, during the week of competitions, and then finally at the end of the competition. And once you’re in the bubble, you stay in that bubble to try and keep Covid at bay. Although sadly it made its way through our defences; one of the Americans tested positive after Kreichberg, and 2 of the Canadians tested positive in Laax. It wiped out - not literally, just off the start list - the American A-Team (think Chris Corning, Kyle Mack etc, not Cannibal and BA) and the Canadian Men’s slopestyle team. What a bummer.
But to be honest, that was quite liberating. We saw some fresher faces in the slopestyle finals that we don’t usually see. Of course, it would have been good to have the North Americans in the finals to really up the ante a bit, but it’s great to see how much depth the Americans have in reserve. It’s going to be tough for them to select just 4 athletes for the Winter Olympics next year - they could easily take 10.
Which leads onto the next point - the intensity of this season. Normally this would be a pretty intense year of competitions anyway, because it’s an Olympic Qualifying year - so every rider is trying to get their best results possible to make the cut. It’s normally an 18-month qualification process finishing only a couple of weeks before the Winter O’s start, with around 10 World Cups, and that's usually manageable, if a little stressful - you can have a bad day at one World Cup, and then make up for it at the next. But this season, we’re looking at just a handful of World Cups and that’s before those future events get cancelled. So the pressure is really on for riders, and there’s no space for errors from them - or us.
There’s a common misconception, that we judges only care about the podium result. In fact, we have to rank the runs correctly all the way down to last place. In an Olympic qualification year, the difference between 22nd and 23rd can be the difference between making it to the Olympics - or not. So we’ve got a fair bit of pressure on us to get it right.
What about the actual judging side of things - has anything changed? Not really. The Team Captain’s Meeting is now on Zoom - but that’s the only infuriating thing. After we’ve all spent months on Zoom calls for meetings, quizzes, birthday parties etc, we now get to escape to the mountains, and they put us on another f*cking Zoom call! As judges, we still sit in the judges stand together - and even though there’s been talk of us doing it virtually from our homes, that hasn’t happened yet.
Sure, we now wear masks - but that seems part and parcel of everyday life nowadays. We have less face-to-face communication with riders and coaches, which sucks - from both a social and competition perspective. Normally, we chat to riders and coaches about how they’re finding the course, what their take is on the rail sections are and how they should be rewarded. This helps the judging massively because we’re then in tune with the riders - but it’s also nice just to have a chinwag with the coaches.
If there’s any major protests, then the coaches still come talk to us after the competition. But if it’s just a little query, we now do it over whatsapp. The advantage of Covid is that it makes it harder for the riders to give us shit - now they just DM us on Instagram, informing us what a disgrace we are to snowboarding and that we should quit our jobs. I’m not even joking - it happened in Kreischberg, but we smoothed it out with the rider by pointing out that we had done everything he wanted us to do, he just didn’t understand the maths.
And the mountains themselves? Quiet as f*ck, and absolutely blissful for it. Masks need to be worn on chairlifts and in queues, and no apres-ski bars on the mountain are open, but there are so few crowds, the slope’s are a dream. I had a moment in Kreischberg, with an entire piste to myself - and the only thing I could hear was the sound of my own edges on the snow. It was absolute heaven. Powder days get tracked out slightly less quickly, because the British kooks aren’t there to tomahawk through fresh powder fields, leaving so much more space for this kook to tomahawk with peace of mind.
Yet another downside is the lack of places to go for a beer after the contest. The World Cup Tour is often a lot of drinking in hotel rooms, but this year that’s been magnified significantly. No more contest after-parties, no crazy stories. Just you and whoever you’re sharing a room with stockpiling the fridge with supermarket-beer and hoping you don’t run out at a key time.
Despite the negativity I’m super stoked to have the chance to shred when so many friends can’t - sorry to those that have been following me on social media. I don’t think I can tell you quite how stressful it’s been. Chairlift Jerry’s now have an extra fear factor - we never know where they’ve been!
All the exams I ever took don’t bring about the stress of failing a Covid test. If it comes up positive when you’re in the bubble, you have to self-isolate, all the other judges have to self-isolate, now there’s no judges for the contest, so that will get cancelled. If you’re in Switzerland, self-isolating will cost you an absolute fortune and I’ll be honest, it’s not a well-paid job - it’s a paid-hobby, at most. All this combined means that after I’ve taken a Covid test, I end up checking my phone every few minutes waiting for a text in a foreign language, that somewhere will just say “negatif”.
So ultimately, whilst it sucks to stay home in the UK and not go riding, be thankful that you don’t have to deal with that stress on top of everything else. Although I guess you get that same stress whenever you nip down to Aldi. F*ck it - just go snowboarding.