Judge not, unless you've really got the skill

Olympic scorers missing the point


Athens Olympics

August 25, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Judge not this story. You're human, we're human, all God's children are human. But if you must judge, at least wait until the end to see if we stick the landing and don't tumble over into the sports section.

By now, you're confused and frustrated over judging at the Olympics. Let us help. With a little time to deconstruct the mental gymnastics happening in Athens, be assured the finer points of judging men's gymnastics are finally clear and absolute.

Let's start with that hauntingly familiar phrase, "start value."

Contrary to what the liberal media reported, 9.762 was the score every male gymnast started with -- not the 10.0 or 9.80 start values that were the heart of Paul Hamm's all-around gold-medal controversy. How did the judges arrive at the 9.762 mark and not, say, 9.76? This is where it gets technical.

The 9.762 score, we understand, takes into account whether the athlete passed AP English in high school. By contrast, a typical start value for a gymnast with only Honors English would be 9.562, still more than fair.

Deductions made in gymnastics may have baffled you -- but no more! Standard deductions are given for errors ranging from excessive pre-routine chalking to hurtling off narrow and scary gym equipment and smacking one's head very hard in front of every nation.

Also, if a gymnast lands without perfect stickage and sails into the press gallery, the judges deduct a tenth of his future income. For the novice viewer, these and other nuances of scoring can often go undetected.

Thus, anyone watching Alexei Nemov's high-bar act the other night probably judged for themselves that the Russian gymnast deserved a whopper score -- despite the fact he took no English classes in high school. But the judges gave Nemov a 9.725 mark -- and he hadn't even landed in any judge's lap, which is an automatic deduction, unless you know the judge fairly well.

This upset the masses. The crowd booed for 8.567 minutes, until the judges came to their senses and did the only honorable thing. They upped Nemov's mark to the customary 9.762. Somehow, a phantom deduction vanished before our eyes.

So what did we learn from this public display of hissing? Don't fret deductions. Mob rule rules. If you don't like a deduction, holler. Stick it to the judges of this judged sport.

All of which raises the larger question of whether subjectively judged sports should even be in the Olympics. There's just something clean about winning an Olympic softball, volleyball or basketball game: The team with the most points wins. When someone makes a free throw, viewers don't need a Canadian or Malaysian judge to confer and confirm whether the basketball's downward trajectory caused the round object to break the plane of the rim. No sir, a bucket is a bucket.

It's a perfect system. If you don't count that little incident with the U.S. men's basketball team in 1972.

The U.S. squad lost the gold medal game to the Soviet Union when, after it seemed the game had ended, officials put three seconds back on the clock, giving the Soviets enough time to throw a long pass and score the winning basket.

The U.S. team, which included a 7-foot-2 center named Tom Burleson, refused to accept the silver. He and his teammates still have a pact to never accept the silver medals, which remain in a vault in Sweden.

"I really don't want the stinking thing," says Burleson, now a 52-year-old building inspector in his home state of North Carolina.

Like many of us, Burleson has also tried to make sense of the Olympic judging this year. "They didn't take Hamm's medal, did they?"

No, they didn't. Hamm got his gold medal.

Which, for all the hassle in these Olympics, is still more than you can say for Tom Burleson.

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