Gymnastics tiebreakers are nuts!

Crazy rules cost American Liukin a gold. Then again, all gymnastics rules are crazy, and sane ones wouldn't have helped her.

Published August 19, 2008 5:35PM (EDT)

NBC's gymnastics experts, Tim Daggett and Elfi Schlegel, say the gymnastics tie-breaking procedures don't make sense and should be changed. Somehow, I don't remember them mentioning this until the tie-breaking procedure cost American Nastia Liukin the gold medal in the uneven bars Monday. Liukin tied with He Kexin of China, who won the tiebreaker.

The tie-breaking rules are pretty absurd, but singling them out is a little like lamenting that homeless people can't get good brie. It's true, but it's such a small part of the issue it's not even worth mentioning. The whole system of judging and scoring in gymnastics is so bizarre, convoluted, unfair and corrupt that junking the whole thing for an applause meter would actually be an improvement.

Consider that judges give the first competitor in a rotation lower scores to "leave room" for potentially better routines later, and that the order is chosen at random. That alone, just that one small aspect of gymnastics judging, is bang your head on the wall stupid. When you start with that, it really doesn't matter where you go next.

But we love talking about rules around here, so here's what happened, as explained by Daggett:

Both gymnasts started with a difficulty score of 7.7, which gets added to their execution scores, which start at 10 and are subject to deductions for imperfections in the routine. Here's how the six judges scored for each gymnast:

He 9.3, 9.1, 9.1, 9.0, 8.9, 8.9
Liukin 9.3, 9.1, 9.0, 9.0, 9.0, 8.8

Now, tie or no, the highest and lowest scores get thrown out. This is an anti-corruption mechanism, essentially. You have to get to at least two judges to affect the scoring, because the one who gives your opponent a 3.6 in exchange for a little something something isn't going to have his vote counted.

Without the highest-lowest-out rule, He would have won by 0.1 points. But the four remaining scores came out even:

He 9.1, 9.1, 9.0, 8.9
Liukin 9.1, 9.0, 9.0, 9.0

So that's when the tiebreaker came in. What would you do here? I'd have them redo their routines. Overtime. Another good method would be to award two gold medals, which is how they do it at the world championships. Not a big fan of that, but if you're not going to have overtime and decide it on the field, then ties are better than obscure tiebreakers.

My next method -- third best, now -- would be to start taking out the top scores until there's an uneven pair. That would reward the gymnast who convinces more judges that she's good.

No judge gave either gymnast a score higher than any of the other girl's scores. They both got a 9.3, which got thrown out at the start, and even after that, they both got a 9.1. I'd throw those out too and give the gold to He, because she got a second 9.1 and Liukin didn't.

This is exactly the opposite of what really happens, which is that the lowest scores get thrown out again. That meant Liukin lost a 9.0 and He an 8.9, breaking the tie.

Again, my method is only marginally less absurd. The whole thing's crazy. And in this case the result was the same. But rather than He getting credit for more judges thinking she was better, she gets rewarded for more judges thinking she was worse, which is bug nuts.

Another way to do it, one I'd rank fourth, behind my throw out the high scores method and ahead of the method actually used, would be to throw out both the high and low scores again from the remaining four. That would leave the middle two scores. Another way to put it would be that the higher median score wins. In this case, again, He.

The gymnastics people are going to change this tie-breaking procedure before the next Olympics, because that's what those folks do when they have a controversy and four years on their hands. I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with. It won't really change anything, but it figures to be delightfully absurd.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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