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Thursday, May 12, 2011
Behind the Curtain: Josh Loubek

By John Symms
ESPN Action Sports

[Editor's note: In our latest interview series, Behind the Curtain, we talk to the people backstage in the ski industry. This is the final installment. If you missed the previous interviews, check out part one with ski tuner Kenny Nault, part two with event announcer Frankie Alisuag, part three with coach Elana Chase, part four with course builder David Ny and part five with avy forecaster Lee Metzger.]

Josh Loubek, top left, acting as head judge for the FIS Freestyle World Championships in February in Park City.

Josh Loubek judged ski pipe, slope and big air events for the better part of a decade before helping found the Association of Freeskiing Professionals, where he now serves as the director of judging. The AFP's world ranking system is the standard used for determining which skiers get invited to Winter X and the Winter Dew Tour, and will likely factor into many National Team decisions for future Olympic ski pipe events. Between now and 2014, Loubek will be working with FIS to establish the format for the first Olympic ski halfpipe event.

AFP started because we needed a valid system for choosing who got into the X Games. Now AFP takes into consideration events at all levels. If a kid competes at a local event, he can be on the same ranking list as Simon Dumont. He may be 200th, but he's there.

As judges, we don't want to dictate the way the sport should be, but let the athletes dictate the way the sport should be.

This year we had three major meetings between AFP and athletes. We had a grassroots meeting at the World Championships in Park City and it was incredible. That's where the transparency comes in. That's where we tell athletes our ideas about judging. But mostly, that's where we listen to athletes and say, 'What are you guys feeling? What's hot right now?' And we come up with a really good conversation and the athletes actually get to see the processes we go through with judging.

We also bring athletes into the judging booth as observers on occasion. We want them to see our process and the difficulties that go into it and to show them that it's not biased.

When you're a judge, there's always somebody unhappy with you. There's always somebody who's mad at the judges. It seems to be getting more and more acceptable to complain about judging, especially in the world of online media and social networking. We get pretty beat up online, mostly by people who are friends with somebody that didn't win.

It's brutal to come out of the booth and see that, especially because our judges take their jobs very seriously. They want to be right. They are former athletes. They know what it's like to be judged in a competition. So when they walk out and hear that people are displeased, it's really tough.

Olympic halfpipe is a good thing for skiing for sure. Just like snowboarding halfpipe has been so successful, I believe the same will happen for skiing. A part of me is nervous that standards potentially imposed by the Olympics might slow down progression. Any time we stop progression, that's no fun. I hope that problem never happens.

I'm worried that getting the FIS involved could create a difficult dilemma in judging. We are going to continue to communicate and try and sort through that with the AFP program and merge it in some way that works well for everybody.

The biggest conflict between the FIS and us is strict formulas and standards. For example, a mandate, like the mandatory straight air in Olympic snowboard pipe. I don't like those. And the FIS tends to institute rules like that. Many times they have to have these rules because countries may protest results otherwise. But for example, FIS mandates that competitors submit their run the day before the contest. Things like that are scary.

I don't want to mandate anything in skiing. The mandatory straight air is kind of cool in snowboarding, there's a style and amplitude element to it. But I just don't want to be in a position where we're telling athletes what they have to do. They should be telling us.