Keen observers of professional surfing may have noticed a strange recent phenomenon: the more scores go up, the more performance goes down. Apologists have brushed off score inflation with the time worn argument of “As long as the right guy wins, who cares?” The fans care — that’s who. Because rewarding mediocre rides with the best scores simply encourages the best to turn in mediocre performances. Why should surfers put it all on the line when they can get a 10 for safe surfing?
Joel Parkinson’s “perfect” heat in Bali, featuring two 10s, was case in point. Prior to the Oakley Pro, competitors and fans alike surmised that it would take something really special to earn a perfect 10 at Keramas. After all, it was the rare venue that allowed a surfer to check all boxes on a single wave — tube, power carve, and punt. In round one, surfers came out with all guns blazing. John John dug deep and was rewarded with a perfect 10 for arguably the biggest air ever pulled in a heat. The 10 felt fair enough — after the excellent scores the judges had been handing out for average tube rides, what else were they supposed to give John John?
But when John John came up against Parko, the results were only perfect on paper. The world champ was given two tens for two straight barrels — he didn’t even manage to complete a roundhouse on one. From a purely logical standpoint, these scores were inexcusable. Parko had checked one of three boxes in terms of what was possible out there. What would the judges have done if John John had gotten a barrel as good as Parko’s and then followed it up with a huge layback hack and a flip? They would have given it a 10 — zero points added for that hypothetical hack and punt. John John would have lost with a 10 and a 9.73 — while Parko would have won drawing lines no different than Dane Kealoha at Backdoor in 1981. Hell, with a little luck an average surfer could have taken off in the same spot, closed his eyes, hung on, and got spit out of the same barrels.
Competitors sniffed things out pretty quick. Josh Kerr pretty much quit trying airs when he realized the judges were handing out tens for less-risky tube rides, like doting grandparents giving popsicles to children. What should have been the most high performance event ever degenerated into a wave catching contest. Whoever waited out the back for the best two waves would win each heat. John John’s alley-oop was a dim memory by the time Bourez and Parkinson safety-surfed their way to the podium. The judging scale successfully brought the performance level back 20 years.
Strange thing is, the better the waves get, the more often this seems to happen. Same thing at Cloudbreak, same thing at the recent 6-star held in perfect point surf in El Salvador. Josh Kerr again surfed conservatively, all the way to the final - seemingly well aware that he didn’t need to do anything amazing to get a 10. In recent events, only Slater and John John have seemed willing to take risks on good waves, going for 11s even when a 6 would do.
Judges, consider this a plea: Surfing doesn’t need cheerleaders — it needs objective, critical scoring. Enough with the imperfect tens.