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.

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