With a 10 no longer perfect, gymnastics takes lid off limits

OTHER VOICES

Commentary

November 22, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER

I doubt they saw the philosophical implications and I didn't either, not at first.

See, my editor came by yesterday and said world gymnastics officials had changed their scoring regulations so that a 10 would no longer be, well, perfect.

He asked me what I made of this, and my mind leaped immediately to grade inflation. Every parent in the world wants junior to get into Harvard, so nobody can get a C anymore. We all want so badly to think well of ourselves that there is no average. It's like the NBA dunk contest, where Fred Jones gets a perfect score and we're supposed to believe he's slamming like Dominique Wilkins.

Not buying it.

But as we talked, I realized that isn't what the gymnastics people are doing. They haven't rejiggered their average so much as they've slapped a question mark on the limits of performance.

They have made gymnastics scoring a more truthful commentary on human nature.

Bear with me.

Our own mythology - Icarus failing to fly and all - tells us that nature or the gods or whatever will make fools of us if we push too far.

And often, that's true. The Titanic sank. Climbers perish on Everest. Steroid-fueled athletes lose their reputations and, sometimes, their lives.

But just as often, humans redefine limits that once seemed inherent.

Roger Bannister ran a mile in less than 4 minutes. Chuck Yeager flew a plane faster than sound. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a professional basketball game.

We pick an arbitrary number representing the maximum performance and some brave soul comes along and surpasses it.

It's among the best, and most dangerous, impulses of our species.

Without the destruction of boundaries, we could not have had Darwin, Picasso or heck, Elgin Baylor. But we never would have built "the bomb."

Steroid use is a manifestation of the very impulse represented by the new gymnastics scoring. Damn the souls who said a 9.9-second sprint or 61 home runs were enough. We'll ingest any chemical we can find to stretch our physical limits.

And what about beauty?

The other night, I was watching an NBA playoff game from 1983 and I was amazed to see the Lakers dance team. They were like normal, attractive women. You seen an NBA game lately? The cheerleaders are all stick-thin with curves you rarely saw two decades ago. Every perceived imperfection has been carved away.

I'm not sure Bo Derek, the original perfect 10, could even make a squad. The old beautiful is normal and the new beautiful is flawless and the next beautiful will be ... lord knows what.

If you think people won't swap genes or add robot parts just to run faster or hit a ball farther or look more desirable, think again. It's what we do, and if we destroy ourselves in the quest for a more perfect perfection, well, that's how we were meant to go.

Gymnastics will probably not usher in the apocalypse. But its history with the so-called perfect score is illustrative.

The 10 has represented a scoring pinnacle since the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, but for more than 50 years, no one was judged flawless.

Then, in the 1976 Olympics, Nadia Comaneci stunned experts and television viewers alike by earning seven perfect 10s. The judges had to hold up cards reading 1.00 because no one had made any with enough space for 10.00. Perfection seemed that remote a possibility until the 14-year-old Romanian amazed with her precision and grace.

Comaneci was like a Picasso or Beethoven, bewitching in the possibilities she awakened. I know this because my mother, who cared not a lick for sports of any kind, spoke of the gymnast in awed tones.

Then, perfection lost a bit of luster. Mary Lou Retton earned two 10s in 1984 and, though we all admired her spunk and ability, she did not transcend as Comaneci had. The score became more and more common, given to the best gymnast in a given competition (Would we have given Reggie Jackson 62 home runs just because he led the league one season?).

Tired of the relativization of greatness, gymnastics officials fashioned a backlash, removing the perfect 10 from their sport with a rigorous set of technical requirements. Top gymnasts stopped even attempting to reach perfection, settling for programs with maximum possible scores of 9.7 or 9.8.

This seemed a little reactionary. No one's ever succeeded for long in trying to constrain human progress.

Last year, a judge screwed up by starting a Chinese gymnast with a 9.9 degree of difficulty instead of the proper 10, a decision that ultimately gave the gold medal to American Paul Hamm and spurred cries for reform.

In reaction, officials have created a system in which 10 will be a hard score to attain, but won't be the ultimate. Should a performer, a human cat more graceful and precise than even Comaneci, come along, judges will not be restrained in expressing their appreciation.

I like the statement this makes. We think we know what great is, and we'll judge you by that standard, but if you explode the standard, more power to you.

This may all seem a bit unsettling. Boundaries - baseball with a 61-homer limit, a world where no weapon could end us in seconds - offer comfort. But we don't accept limits for long, and gymnastics can't be blamed for being human. I look forward to seeing the leaping, twisting prodigy who's better than perfect.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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