Thanks to the popularity of freestyle snowboarding at the Winter Olympics – first halfpipe in 1998, then slopestyle in 2014 – a new discipline was added to the program for PyeongChang 2018: big air.
The name is a fairly apt description of this event, as the riders do get an impressive amount of air when going off the massive kickers used in these contests. But it’s not so much the amplitude and distance that riders are being evaluated on here. In the end, it comes down to using that air time to execute your best tricks.
Most slopestyle snowboarders participate in big air, as the two disciplines go hand-in-hand. But whereas slopestyle contests emphasize consistency (the ability to land a full run from top to bottom), variety (the ability to spin multiple directions off the different jumps) and versatility (the ability to execute technical tricks on both rails and jumps alike), big air contests are an opportunity to just send it on one single jump.
Because of this, big air ramps have become a breeding ground for progression in snowboarding. When new tricks are unveiled, they’re usually first seen at a big air contest. The larger jump allows riders more time to attempt harder tricks, and the “one jump, one trick” format encourages them to try riskier maneuvers that they may not be able to consistently land yet. When multiple riders are opting for that sort of high-risk, high-reward strategy, that’s really when this event hits its peak in terms of energy and excitement levels.
Here’s what you need to know about snowboarding’s newest Olympic event.
A brief history of big air
Despite being new to the Olympics, big air has been around for quite some time. The first “Air & Style” contest was held in Innsbruck, Austria in 1994. After that, big air debuted at the Burton U.S. Open in 1995 and was part of early X Games events just a few years later. FIS then added it to the World Cup circuit for the 2001/02 season, and it became a world championship event the following season.
In the years that followed, big air wasn’t contested on a consistent basis at the sport’s premier events. But after X Games brought it back for the men in 2008, it became one of snowboarding’s marquee attractions. Women’s big air, which was part of the early days, remained shelved at X Games Aspen until 2017 though.
Meanwhile, the Air & Style series has turned into an iconic event and now includes multiple stops around the world each year. Shaun White purchased a majority stake in the contest series back in 2014 and has been influential in shaping the current iteration of the tour.
Originally a snowboard-only competition, big air has now become a major event for freeskiers as well since its resurgence. But for the 2018 Olympic program, only snowboard big air was approved as a new discipline. That means that ski big air won’t be contested in PyeongChang, though it could be on the table for the next Winter Games in 2022.
How is a big air jump created?
Big air contests can be staged in one of two ways: either by building a massive jump out of snow on the slope of a mountain (which is what X Games does) or by using scaffolding to construct a giant ramp that can be placed anywhere – even inside Fenway Park. Most of the World Cup and Air & Style events tend to use the scaffolding setup. Here are examples of both types:
The big air jump in PyeongChang, though, is more like a hybrid of those two types of setups. The top of the ramp, where riders will drop in, is built on elevated scaffolding, but the landing of the jump uses the existing structure of stadium seating as a base for the snow.
It’s a unique setup, and the jump drew widespread praise from the riders who participated in the test event in 2016 – a welcome development after Sochi’s halfpipe and slopestyle course were repeatedly dinged by athletes for quality and safety concerns at the last Olympics.
And in case you’re wondering how athletes get to the top of the ramp, there’s an elevator for that:
How is big air judged?
All judges score each attempt on a scale ranging from 1 to 100. Scoring for big air contests is based off the D-E-A-L criteria:
The technical difficulty of tricks is assessed. Generally speaking, tricks with more rotation are considered more technically difficult and will be rewarded as such. But there are other ways riders can increase the difficulty of a particular trick. For example, an athlete may decide to take off or land switch when executing a trick, or they may do a more challenging grab to differentiate themselves from other riders in the field. Progressive tricks that other riders aren’t doing will be rewarded.
Control should be maintained throughout the whole trick, from take-off to landing. Grabs should be held properly and for as long as possible.
In big air, amplitude is not just about how big the athlete goes, but also landing the trick in the decided “sweet spot.” To have too much or too little amplitude on the jump can be dangerous and will be taken into account by the judges.
Riders must land with full control, with the trick already completed. If a rider drags their hand on the ground or reverts while landing, that will be penalized.
In the qualifying round at the Winter Olympics, each rider will have two attempts, and only their best score will count. So riders just need to land their biggest, baddest trick one time.
But things will get a little more difficult in the final, which will consist of three attempts. The scores from each competitor’s two best attempts will be added together to get the final results, and athletes must spin their tricks in different directions on those two runs. For example, if a rider spins a frontside rotation on one of those runs, they will need to spin a different rotation (backside, switch frontside or switch backside) on the other run. If a rider performs the same rotation more than once, then only the highest score will be counted.
So not only do riders need to be a little more consistent in the final, they’re also going to have to show more variety.
Who are the favorites in the men’s event?
This event has been dominated by the Canadian duo of Mark McMorris and Max Parrot in recent years. McMorris always has multiple variations of triple corks dialed in, and Parrot is typically at the forefront of introducing new tricks such as the quad underflip. Both will be gold-medal contenders in PyeongChang.
The biggest challenge to Canada’s historic big air supremacy will come from Marcus Kleveland. The 18-year-old from Norway has won back-to-back silver medals in big air at X Games Aspen and is a rising star in the sport. In 2017, he was the first to land a quad cork 1800 in competition.
While it remains to be seen if quads will come into play in PyeongChang, the most likely candidates to attempt one are Parrot and Kleveland.
Among the other medal hopefuls are Norway’s Mons Roisland, who has been trying to perfect his switch backside 1620, and Team USA’s Chris Corning, who has landed a quad in training but never in a contest.
Who are the favorites in the women’s event?
It wasn’t until big air was added to the Olympic program that the event really started to take off again on the women’s side. Reclaiming its status as an official X Games competition after a long hiatus and attracting top-tier slopestyle riders to cross over and compete are fairly recent developments. Because of that, there’s not a lot of history to go off of, and the field is constantly progressing at every contest.
What we have learned, though, is that doubles appear to be the benchmark for what will be needed to win this contest in PyeongChang. There have already been multiple variations of doubles brought to competition, but they generally fall into one of three categories: double cork 1080s, double cork 900s and double underflips.
The favorite right now would be Austria’s Anna Gasser, who is coming off a big win at X Games and has multiple variations of doubles in her arsenal. The U.S. trio of Hailey Langland, Julia Marino and Jamie Anderson is strong in this event as well.
In addition to doubles, it wouldn’t be surprising to see riders attempting variations of 900s or 1080s as well.
When will big air take place?
Big air will be the last of the three freestyle snowboarding disciplines to take place in PyeongChang. The schedule is below, and all dates and times are listed in U.S. Eastern Time.
NBCOlympics.com will have live streaming coverage of every round.
Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m. – Women’s big air qualifying
Feb. 20, 7:30 p.m. – Men’s big air qualifying
Feb. 22, 7:30 p.m. – Women’s big air final
Feb. 23, 8:00 p.m. – Men’s big air final