NATCHITOCHES, La., July 28, 2012 — Gymnastics is a wonderful display of athletic skill. The first time you see a top-level gymnast flying over the uneven parallel bars or performing an iron cross on the rings, you’re stunned by the strength and beauty on display. Gymnastic exercises are amazing.
They don’t belong in the Olympics.
The problem isn’t that gymnasts aren’t extraordinary athletes. They are. It isn’t that gymnastics isn’t a fantastic display of “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” the Olympic motto. Those athletes are incredibly strong, and they fly high. The problem isn’t that gymnastics is boring to watch. It’s fascinating and beautiful.
The problem is that, like an artistic display, it has to be judged. It’s subjective, and the winner isn’t always the best.
There’s rarely any argument over who wins a hundred-meter race. It’s the runner who got across the finish line first. We can measure that to the tiniest fraction of a second, and the gold goes to the fastest. Weightlifting? Measure the weight. Water polo? Soccer? Count the goals scored.
Archery, high jump, badminton, basketball — these all produce clear winners. The winner is the fastest, the one who jumps highest, the one who’s strongest that day. Other sports - fencing, boxing, and judo, for instance - involve a certain amount of judging and are prone to controversy (who can forget the professional bout between Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley this year?), but one-on-one matches usually produce a clear winner.
Gymnastics doesn’t always produce such clear winners. We have degrees of difficulty, the tiniest wobbles and hops affecting scores by fractions of a point. Expert commentators are often surprised by the scores given to routines.
Politics and a gymnast’s reputation can affect the scores. Cuban judges inevitably gave lower scores to American gymnasts than to Soviet gymnasts. Judging was reformed several years ago in response to some complaints about subjectivity. The age of the “perfect 10” ended, and judging was broken up between two panels. One panel judges difficulty and required elements, starting at zero and adding points as the routine goes on. The second panel judges execution. Their scores start at ten, with points deducted as the routine goes on for breaks in execution. The scores are added for a final score that will be something like 16.25 for a very good score, rather than 9.6.
The reforms were an improvement, making a little more explicit what exactly was being judged, but they didn’t require subjectivity or prejudice from judges. That prejudice isn’t just national, but also reputational. Gymnasts who have done well in other international competitions can still get a better break from the judges.
The reforms have made the judging criteria more explicit, but the judging still takes place in the heads of the judges. The result will still produce unexpected boos from the audience.
And there’s another reason that gymnastics really isn’t a sport that belongs in the Olympics. Clearly, winners and losers shouldn’t be chosen by audience preferences. The judges are experts, the audience members aren’t. But what does it say about a sport when expertise is required to determine the winners and losers? And what does it say when two panels of experts are required to determine the winner, and different subsets of judges would produce different winners?
It says that gymnastics is as much an art as a sporting competition. Speed, height and strength all matter, but they don’t uniquely determine a winner. Instead they’re colors on a palette, used to produce a final work of art that may be more or less expert, that one viewer might love and might leave another saying, “meh.”
Winning a gymnastics gold medal in the Olympics is like winning the Van Cliburn piano competition. Would the judges have been more wowed if you’d played Liszt than Beethoven? Did the judges want you to play that passage faster, or did they want more legato, or were they distracted by your ugly red shoes? What’s the real difference between gold and silver?
Nothing that you can put your finger on, and so the gold-medal winner can only lay claim to winning, not to being the best, the fastest or the strongest. Just the winner. If a swimmer breaks a world record and still comes in second or out of the medals, she can still point to her time and everyone who cares will know that it was great.
Gymnastics, unlike other Olympic sports, isn’t, even in principle, mostly about competing and doing your best. It isn’t about a great score, because that’s subjective, not absolute. It’s all about winning. Only by winning can you say your performance was great; gymnastics greatness boils down to winning.
The Olympics last for almost three weeks, with dozens of venues and thousands of athletes competing in dozens of events. It’s an overgrown spectacle put on for the glory of the IOC, not for sport. It should be pruned, and gymnastics is one of the sports that should go.
But not the only one.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He first saw gymnasts in action when he watched Olga Korbut at the Munich Olympics. He was absolutely blown away, hardly able to believe what he was seeing. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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