Freestyle skiing at the Beijing Olympics: Team GB prospects, what are the rules and how does scoring work?
Freestyle skiing is quite a broad way to describe any version of skiing that is not your classic alpine discipline. Most events are judged - like the Big Air, Moguls and Halfpipe competitions - but ski cross follows a course of jumps and obstacles which pits athletes against each other in a race to the finish line.
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Freestyle is the cool little brother of the skiing world, just don’t tell alpine that. It is now a fixture of the Winter Olympic programme, having made its debut at the 1988 Games in Calgary.
34 years later, there are now 13 events in the schedule and most of which are judged, apart from ski cross which is every athlete for themselves in a race to the finish line.
The Olympic Games is unique for freestyle skiers. The World Cup circuit is built on the alternative - this is a sport where camaraderie is a major part of competition, where the idea is to entertain and push the boundaries to stunt levels which Tom Cruise would not go near.
At the Games, that focus switches to an athlete representing their country. That is a shift in mentality for all of the skiers, and many have spoken in the past about the different pressures that brings. But an Olympic gold is an Olympic gold - and the competition is serious.
It is an unpredictable sport, demonstrated by the fact that the athlete with the best medal return has just three - Norway’s Kari Traa with one of each colour. The two big stars right now are Canada’s Mikael Kingsbury and Perrine Laffont of France. Kingsbury won Moguls gold in Pyeongchang and he is also the reigning world champion in that event and the dual Moguls. Laffont has a similar record, and she will be defending her title in Beijing.
But Team GB also have serious contenders for medals, too. James ‘Woodsy’ Woods is a 2019 slopestyle world champion who agonisingly missed out on a podium spot in Pyeongchang, while Izzy Atkin picked up bronze in the women’s event. Her younger sister, Zoe, is also making waves as a World Cup gold medallist in the 2020 season.
They can count on a bit of Hollywood stardust too, in Gus Kenworthy.
Team GB freestyle participants and medal prospects
Great Britain go into Beijing with arguably the best chance of winning freestyle skiing medals than at any previous Winter Olympics.
James ‘Woodsy’ Woods took some time off from the sport after Pyeongchang and has returned to become a world slopestyle champion. The new World Cup season has got off to a fairly slow start - but he also proved in the previous campaign that he peaks at the end of the schedule.
In the same event, Izzy Atkin will be looking to go one or two better than her bronze in Pyeongchang, although she has not been on the podium since 2020. Her younger sister Zoe will be the same age as her sibling was - 19 - when she gets to Beijing in the halfpipe, and she looks the better prospect at least in the early stages of the season and form in the past year, having finished with a World Cup silver as recently as March 2021, and World Championship bronze. Former Winter Youth Olympics silver medallist Kirsty Muir is also a contender.
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Gus Kenworthy is already an Olympic silver medallist, having won slopestyle silver at Sochi 2014 under the USA flag. Since then, he has become one of the biggest stars of snowsport, having become the first openly gay skier when he came out in 2014. He is perhaps better known off the slopes here, than he is on it, having starred as a main character in one of the seasons of American Horror Story, as well as a guest judge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race - he is now competing for GB, where his mother is from.
On the global stage, Perrine Laffont of France and Canada’s Mikael Kingsbury are the big names, as they both look to retain their Moguls Olympic titles.
The ski cross is the only event which is a direct race against each other over a series of obstacles. World champion Sandra Naslund will be the favourite in the women’s event, while Alex Fiva is also looking to convert his world title to gold.
There are 13 events in all, 12 of which are judged and one is a race against each other over a series of obstacles - the ski cross.
Featuring on the schedule is:
Men's & Women's Aerials
Men's & Women's Moguls
Men's & Women's Ski Cross
Men's & Women's Halfpipe
Men's & Women's Slopestyle
Men's & Women's Big Air
Aerials Mixed Team
As well as the judging of the events, the Big Air athletes are also scored on how high they get.
Ski cross is completely unpredictable and is very similar to the BMX racing event at the Summer Olympics. One slip-up, and the entire field could go down - making it one of the most exciting events to watch of the Games.
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Who won the last Olympic gold in freestyle skiing?
There are lots of events at the Winter Olympics. In the Aerials, Ukraine’s Oleksandr Abramenko won the men;s title, with Hanna Huskova from Belarus taking the women’s equivalent.
Oystein Braten of Norway took slopestyle gold, with Switzerland’s Sarah Hofflin winning the women’s event. Halfpipe success was claimed by Cassie Sharpe from Canada, with the USA’s David Wise winning the men’s title.
Moguls is one of the biggest events - Mikael Kingsbury and Perrine Laffont are the reigning champions, while ski cross golds went to Canadian pair Kelsey Serwa and Brady Leman.
This is a very complicated one to cover, so to simplify - each event, other than ski cross, is judged upon a number of technical factors. They usually cover elements like the amount of ‘air’ they get in their jump, the control and form and landing - along with a number of other factors. Increasing the difficulty level - and executing that well - will lead to a greater score.
If skiers stop because of a fall, or a mistake, they usually have a limited time to continue, or they will be judged up until that point.
Moguls is scored differently. Out of 100 points, the judges break down is 60 for turns, 20 for air and 20 for speed - deductions can be made because of a variety of factors, including errors like falls. For turns, the mark is out of 60 - five judges give scores of up to 20, with the highest and lowest scores deducted. Two judges scores for air, out of 10 each, are added together, and then speed is determined by the time from start gate to finish line and then compared with the pace time - which is set based on course length and expected metre per second. All these scores are then added up.
In ski cross, it is a little bit more simpler, in theory. Out of the start gate, it is the first athlete to cross the line that wins. The obstacles and jumps mean there are often falls, which will usually result in a number of rivals going down too, given their close proximity. But they cannot get in the way of each other deliberately, or they will face disqualification, either directly or as a result of an appeal.
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How dangerous is freestyle skiing?
Very! Think of travelling as fast as you can, launching yourself off a slope at high speed and trying to go as high as you can, while performing a number of somersaults in the air, losing where you are before landing. This is basically the element of most freestyle events, and it will inevitably lead to injury - often serious - if an athlete gets that wrong.
In ski cross, there are also fast speed dangers - mainly crashing into other skiers if they fall, which could lead to nasty consequences. The athletes are incredibly skilled, and they know when to pull out of a move which could be too dangerous.
Why are there branches on the ground in freestyle skiing?
When you are doing all kinds of acrobatics in the air, you need to know where the ground is - the branches are the reference point for the athletes, to minimise the chance of losing where they are in the move.
What is mogul in freestyle skiing?
You know when people say “isn’t skiing bad for your knees?” - they have not seen moguls. Athletes compete in this event across a sheet of bumps in the snow, on an extremely steep course. The idea is to complete as many turns as possible, but skiers are also judged on jumps and speed - it looks absolutely brutal on the limbs, and it is.
It is seen as one of the most challenging events in freestyle skiing, given all the elements which go into it.