Judges' routines have serious flaws

Men's Gymnastics

Athen Olympics

Prime time tonight: Track and field, diving, beach volleyball, gymnastics, wrestling. Chs. 11, 4 at 8 p.m.

August 24, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

ATHENS - Just another night at gymnastics. Great athletes. Nice show. Judges inducing the crowd to riot.

What a scene. Russian gymnast Alexi Nemov swung around and around in the air, defying gravity and logic with skill moves on the high bar that swept the crowd off its feet. Never before had we seen such tricks.

Ah, but the landing. It was flawed. Enough so that the judges marked the Russian third.

The crowd went nuts. They booed and booed and turned the Olympic Indoor Stadium into the Roman Colosseum.

Thumbs up, we agree with your score. Thumbs down ...

Well, the 8 1/2 minutes of booing, jeering and angry whistles at the score were taken to be a serious thumbs down. So, the judges then did what judges do. They messed things up even more.

A Canadian judge and a Malaysian judge changed their marks, turning Nemov's score of 9.725 into a 9.762 - just like magic! It wasn't enough to move Nemov into gold-medal contention, which left the door open for others to grab it, but it was unprecedented.

"I have never seen anything like that before in my life," U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm said.

Which is pretty amazing, considering that at the start of the night, Hamm's all-around gold medal was such a source of contention in the freaky world of international gymnastics that his mother spent the weekend bawling.

An Olympics already ruined got worse.

While the crowd expressed its displeasure and Hamm was left waiting to perform, it was tough to separate how much of the booing was for the judges and how much was residual unhappiness at Hamm's continued possession (or unwillingness to share) the gold medal he had won on Wednesday.

See, we went to gymnastics last night to see Hamm's showdown against South Korean Yang Tae Young. Odd as it may sound, the men's high bar event became must-see Olympic competition.

Ever since the South Korean and his federation filed a protest over the gold medal Hamm won in the men's all-around competition, the South Korean has been the aggrieved Olympian and Hamm has been the guy hung out to dry.

Such a nice sport, gymnastics. Work for four years to get to the big stage and watch it all blow up in your face.

To this we say: Chalk another one up to that fun-loving crowd at the International Gymnastics Federation.

We would ... if we could find them.

We looked. We asked. But only the sound of silence, even on a night when their silence opened the floodgates for a boo-fest at the Olympic gymnastics finale.

For Hamm's sake, not to mention Yang's sake, we tried to get an explanation and final word on the judging controversy that propelled the South Koreans to protest.

Only thing was, none of the muckety-mucks from the federation were around last night, when all hell broke loose at the Olympic Indoor Stadium, and, once again, a judged sport was made to look like a candidate for Olympic abolition.

See, there are still some people out here kicking around the idea that Hamm should give back the gold medal he won, based on the fact that a technical scoring error gave Hamm the gold over Yang, which neither the judges nor the South Koreans caught or protested before it was too late.

The Koreans had a right to protest, but gymnastics rules do not allow for scores or results to be overturned.

It sounds simple: Give the gold to the South Korean. Or even share it. But it's not simple - and Hamm has steadfastly said that he played by the rules, that the Olympic victory and gold medal are his.

"I feel I put my best effort forward in the competition and was awarded the title of Olympic all-around champion," he said last night after winning silver in the high bar.

He should not have to defend himself. That's someone else's job, particularly because he's here competing for the United States.

The competition is over. The case is closed, even if the U.S. Olympic Committee has effectively kept the discussion alive by agreeing to "negotiate" with the South Korean delegation.

The problem is there's nothing the USOC can do. Playing good politics is understandable, but it propagates the idea that things could change, that the situation is fluid. It's not. Or, at least, it should not be. Not when the athletes are trying to compete.

This is not like Salt Lake City, where the pairs figure skating competition was compromised by a co-opted judge.

The men's all-around event was nicked by a technical scoring error - one that can be dealt with according to rules and procedures, but not to the extent that the South Koreans and a portion of the international media might have liked.

"It's like you watching a football game on ESPN and there's a holding call in the fourth quarter that doesn't get called. Do you demand that the team gives back the Super Bowl trophy?" USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi said.

"We're talking about 24 athletes in six events. That's 144 routines. If you choose to evaluate each and every one of those, go to videotape, create that kind of circus? That's ridiculous. They play the national anthem, the flag goes up, that's it. It's finished."

This whole situation would be comical if it weren't so distracting and sad. That's about the only way to look at Olympic sports that rely on judging - and you may guess where we're going with this.

It almost makes you want to call for an Olympic abolition on all judged sports, only we know far too well that gymnastics and figure skating are the gravy trains that generate the ad revenue to justify television coverage, two things that can influence reasonable people into thinking the Olympics is still a good idea.

Talk about a problem.

Last night, after a riotous crowd booed a panel of gymnastics judges - who shall remain nameless, mostly because that's the way the "sport" operates - Colarossi attempted to dump all the blame for Hamm's unfortunate Olympic experience on the media.

This kind of tactic usually works, but in this case, we can think of a few other culprits who must shoulder the blame. If only we could find them.

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