Fool’s gold

The real question to ask after Liukin and He's routines: Why can't there be a tie?

Topics: Olympics,

By now, we all know that China’s He Kexin narrowly won the gold medal on uneven bars, with Nastia Liukin securing the silver, after a double tiebreaker involving a highly complex set of rules put in place by the International Gymnastics Federation at the request of the IOC, clearly laid out by King Kaufman in perfect detail.

The debate about which gymnast had the better routine is moot. Those claiming that Liukin’s was clearly better because she stuck the dismount shows little understanding of where other, less conspicuous deductions can come from. It isn’t always the obvious step or the fall that begets a few tenths off. A few degrees shy of a handstand, a barely visible leg split or “cowboy tuck” on the dismount (knees separated to build acceleration) can also warrant points off. In fact, it could be argued that Shawn Johnson benefited from judges’ overlooking executional deductions each time her split leaps were short of 180 degrees, thus facilitating her silver in the all around. I don’t agree. But I’m confident that there are many proponents of grace and artistry in gymnastics that put forth this point.

Some of these types of “mistakes” can be easily missed, even by experts, depending on the angle, the inadvertent blink of an eye. And, of course, they can be purposely overlooked or exaggerated, depending on the integrity of a judge, a disappointing reality within gymnastics.

But this is an aspect of the sport that those who have grown up in it come to accept, though never embrace. Like ice skating and diving, gymnastics is a judged competitive endeavor. There is always the possibility of human error. Or human foible. It can go the athlete’s way as often as not, evening the scales in the long run.

And just because judging is involved, it doesn’t make this event any more or less of a sport, as many of the commenters claim. A sport by definition is a competitive activity in which physical exertion is involved. Gymnastics is most definitely competitive and the athletes’ exertion is unquestionable.

The new scoring system is an attempt to make things as impartial as possible, providing two marks — one for difficulty, one for execution — and adding them together. Though clearly, it removes little of the debate about executional deductions. At the end of the routine, a judge has to decide where the flaws were. Though she is well trained, she is human.

For the recreational viewer, not catching the shortfall or tilt on a handstand let alone how difficulty levels are calculated (there is no way of knowing unless you study the code of points; the viewer must simply take Tim Daggett’s word for it), the conversation about which girl was more deserving of the gold is a pointless conversation to have. And to cite the non-objective American team coordinator or Liukin’s coach — her father — as proof that Liukin deserved the gold, is clearly not adequate defense. I’m certain one could find many a Chinese commentator or coach that could argue for He’s deservedness.

When watching NBC’s airing of the event, Al Trautwig asked Tim Daggett with flaunted disbelief if the pint-size He could actually believe she won the gold. Of course she believes it, it’s around her neck. Just like Liukin would have believed it had it been around hers. Though He’s coaches would surely have felt and perhaps argued that their girl was robbed.

Because Liukin missed out on gold by .033, a shortfall arrived at when an additional low score was dropped as a tiebreaking mechanism, it can hardly be said that He Kexin was markedly better. Though arguably as close of a call as Phelps’ one-hundredth of a second win in the 100M butterfly, it is harder to swallow because a photo finish doesn’t solve it with any resolution. Phelps quick half-stroke that won him the gold can be verified. He Kexin’s .033 victory cannot, even by those ardent American fans that are absolutely convinced that Liukin’s routine was obviously better.

The real question is: Why can’t there be a tie? “Real sports” have ties. There are ties in soccer. After overtime is completed, if the scores are still the same, a tie is declared. Though I’m no expert, I imagine a tie in track is possible if each sprinter actually crosses the finish line at the exact same time. Though hard to fathom, it is possible that two girls could achieve the exact same scores. Perhaps one had more difficulty, another was more perfect. In the case of He and Liukin, they had equal difficulty scores. Their deductions came in different ways, minuscule missteps barely visible to the naked eye delivering tenths off here and there.

There are legitimate ties in other sports and there were ties in gymnastics up until 1996. And there are ties in the World Championships. Why then is it not possible to be equal in the Olympics? What is the IOC hoping to achieve in eliminating the tie?

Is it somehow less exciting if two girls stand atop the winner’s podium? I don’t think so. Still pretty darned exciting. Is it somehow less fair? More fair, I’d say.

Jennifer Sey is the author of "Chalked Up," her memoir about the ups and downs in internationally competitive gymnastics. She was the 1986 U.S. National Champion and a seven-time national team member.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>