King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Olympics: Fast-forward. No, faster! The gymnastics exhibition is on! Plus: Don't mess with the insane judging, please.

By Salon Staff
Published August 25, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Tonight the TiVo let me down ...

Fast forward mode wasn't capable of moving fast enough for my taste Tuesday night as I tried to get past those gymnastics exhibitions.

Let me get this straight: There are so many events going on it's impossible to keep track of them all. It takes 70 hours a day of TV time to cover them all. And right in the middle of the Olympics, when races are being run, objects are being thrown, bars are being flown over, matches are being played, great chunks of prime time are given over to bad entertainment we wouldn't stop to look at if it were going on in that open space at the mall?

Gymnasts doing Vegas versions of their routines with the lights off and bad Eurodisco playing? There must be some rowing going on. Those drummer guys are available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Perhaps more than a few seconds of the women's pole vaulting could have been shown, or the Iraqi soccer team having its improbable run ended by Paraguay. The American horse jumpers won a silver medal Tuesday. Wouldn't you rather watch some horses jumping than three-time gold medalist Catalina Ponor looking like a late-replacement act for Siegfried and Roy?

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Let's fix gymnastics [PERMALINK]

After the fiasco at the men's individual gymnastics competition Monday night, I think we're in for a big push for reform in the way the sport is judged. We saw the same thing after the figure skating fiasco in 2002. It's a terrible idea.

Like figure skating, the best thing gymnastics has going for it is the capriciousness of the judging. The athletes are stupendous, of course, the men and women, and while many people join me in my discomfort with the little-girls-under-the-yoke vibe of women's gymnastics, many more people find the whole enterprise beautiful and entertaining.

But nothing keeps a sport on people's minds like a good fiasco. Figure skating was big before Tonya Harding, huge after.

What gymnastics officials should do now is make a big show. "We're going to be looking into the judging to see how we should fix it," the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) should read from a statement at a packed press conference. "We're forming a special committee to look into the problem. The committee will draw up a list of suggested modifications to the rules, which will then be submitted no later than 1 June 2005 to the executive board of the Competition Committee, who will then consult with ..."

At this point, the International Gymnastics Federation should look up with one eye to see if anyone's still awake and, on seeing that no one is, bolt out the door.

Because as outraged as the world is at gymnastics right now, about 99 percent of us are going to stop thinking about it long before next June. Some of us have already stopped thinking about it, I'll bet. In fact, what was I just talking about?

We'll think about it again in four years, at which time we'll say, "Weren't they going to change the rules or something?" and then go back to hitting the roof when some poor soul turns in the routine of the night and gets a 9.475.

Which is great fun. Many work hours will be happily lost the next day chewing it over.

Maybe I'm wrong about what we're in for. The federation seems to be off to a good start in ignoring the judging problem. The only reference I could find to Monday's fiasco on the FIG Web site was a passing reference in the results section: "The exercise of Nemov (RUS) performed with 6 releases was the crowds favourite, but despite their noise which stopped the competition and an adjustment to his score is still finished in 5th place." (Some translation issues there, I think.)

The best analysis of all this that I've seen in print has come from none other than Kerri "I vaulted onto a sprained ankle for no good reason in 1996" Strug, who's writing a column for Yahoo Sports.

"With so many factors determining a competitor's marks, you can never completely control your own fate -- and the best man or woman does not always win," she writes. "In fact, for gymnasts, the order in which you compete can have as much to do with your score as your actual performance. Those who go first endure lower scores, so the judges have room to grade upwards if the gymnasts who follow turn in a better routine."

Obviously, this is a deeply flawed system. (Isn't it great?) I mean, "the order in which you compete can have as much to do with your score as your actual performance" ought to have set off alarm bells 50 years ago. How insane is that? Has it never occurred to anyone to fix this over the years? Especially in the last couple of years, when figure skating, which does the same thing, has tried to address the issue?

Any system where you start with a maximum score is going to be flawed for just that reason. (I love it.) The judges assess a degree of difficulty score, a maximum possible, and often it's the maximum, 10.0. That means this is the most difficult routine it's possible for a human being to execute, right? Of course, if the next person's routine is a little better, the whole system falls apart. That's why they have to "leave room," so they don't end up with a bunch of people tied with the maximum score.

Strug again, sounding ridiculously reasonable: "Every gymnast knows what they are getting into from the time they start competing. There are no guarantees in a sport where a quarter of a tenth matters, an inch off to one side results in a fall, or an injury occurs at the wrong time. And although we do not like the uncertainty, it is also just that which gives the sport its appeal."

Exactly. And shed no tears for the gymnasts who get screwed by a judging decision in the Olympics. They're the elite. They've gotten the benefit of the biased judging for most of their careers. No way one loss, even in the Olympics, can make up for all that the incompetence of the system has given them.

I will go for one reform idea that comes from reader Felix Finch, and which is so reasonable I'm sure it won't even be considered: transparency.

"No one knows the basis for scores," he writes in an e-mail. "There's a number posted; you don't have any clue as to what formed that number. You say there's a 0.1 deduction for a landing misstep. OK, why not show each judge's score sheet, show where each point was deducted? It's called transparency, and I reckon I can guess why none of the judges or other bureaucrats want it. But it would be a wonderful first step, making it oh so much more embarrassing for any judge to pick favorites."

I think that's a great idea because it would lead to more judges looking even more uncomfortable on TV, without, I think, really solving the basic problem. And that would be good for the sport.

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Hench-items [PERMALINK]

  • I haven't been talking enough about the U.S. women's basketball team, which is blowing through the tournament. The Americans reached the semifinal by blowing Greece out of the gym Wednesday 102-72, much to the disappointment of a home crowd that gamely cheered the overmatched Greek women to the very end.

    The problem is they keep playing at or just before dawn U.S. time, depending where you live, and hench-network USA is showing the games live. Next up is the semifinal game against Russia Friday at 7 a.m. EDT. Set the alarm, or at least the recorder. This is a good team, and the opposition's about to get tougher.

  • I hope you're not missing the Olympic-themed logos appearing on Google's front page. The logo, which features toga-clad ancient-Greek types playing Olympic sports, with the two O's in the name often playing a major part, changes daily. They've all been great.

    If you miss any, they're archived here. This has been an unpaid announcement, unfortunately.

  • Great moment on USA Wednesday after the women's basketball game. Host Jim Lampley began an interview segment with American swimmer Aaron Peirsol by saying, "The 100 meters, the 200 meters, the 4-by-100-meter medley relay: Three times was the charm for a young man to whom charm seems to come naturally, American Aaron Peirsol."

    At which point the broadcast switched to a two-shot that revealed Peirsol, dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and flip flops, picking at something on his bare ankle.


    Previous column: The gymnastics fiasco

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