The Olympic gymnastics individual event finals, currently underway in Beijing, have already sparked controversy on more than one occasion, although they only began yesterday.
Talk of judging errors and judges’ incompetency developed on the crest of an already controversial wave sweeping through Beijing: that of the alleged age of the Chinese women’s team.
The media has made comments suggesting some of the Chinese women do not truly meet the rule that states a gymnast must be 16 years of age or turn 16 during the games in order to compete. Bela Karolyi, who has coached his fair share of champions, insinuated the Chinese government provides inaccurate passports to their gymnasts so they can compete.
With the age argument already brewing, the judges came under attack during the first two nights of women’s individual events finals. Night 1 brought problems at the vault. Alicia Sacramone, a 20-year-old American, delivered two solid vaults with lower difficulty values than China’s Cheng Fei, who brought higher starting values to the table but who committed several errors, including landing on her knees, during her second vault. Cheng Fei’s scores placed her in third, earned her a bronze and knocked Sacramone off the podium.
Karolyi, who comments on the performances for American news station NBC, called the outcome a “total ripoff” and said his heart goes out to Sacramone, who deserved to be on the podium. American commentator and former gold medal gymnast Tim Daggett added that the judges should have penalized Cheng Fei for more errors than they chose to acknowledge.
Karolyi and Daggett would have more to say the next night when the women took the uneven bars. He Kexin of China performed first and earned a rightly-deserved 16.725 for an impressive routine. American Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympics all-around champion, also delivered a solid performance and also received a 16.725. An automatic tie-breaker was enacted, and the computer system shortly declared He Kexin the gold medalist. Liukin and father Valeri, former Soviet gold-medalist, sat silently on the sidelines as the remaining gymnasts performed, but sought to clarify the situation with Team Coordinator Marta Karolyi (and yes, wife of Bela).
Six judges score each gymnast. The highest and lowest scores are dropped and the remaining four are averaged. In the case of a tie, judges look to each gymnast’s execution score. Since both girls shared the same execution score, the judges then drop each lowest score and recalculate each average. He Kexin was declared the winner based on 0.033 of a point.
Karolyi said both girls deserved the scores they received and both girls deserved gold medals. He argued that other sports issue two golds in ties and that gymnastics should do the same. He also said the tiebreaker method was unfair, as it reduces the balance in the judging system. Karolyi explained that no judges from participating countries could sit on the panel and thus, judges with little experience or low competency levels from nations with weaker gymnastics programs decide who gets the gold. He expressed concern about the tiebreaker method and argued that reducing the gymnasts’ score to the average of three marks only heightens the chance for incompetency or inexperience to show through.
Daggett said Liukin should have won based purely on a superior routine.
I’d have to say I agree with Karolyi in both situations. On vault, Sacramoneimpressed more with two well-done vaults than Cheng Fei with one good vault and one difficult vault full of errors. I cannot understand how a gymnast who lands on all fours places above a gymnast who committed only minor errors. I’ve felt as though the judges have been more biased toward the Chinese gymnasts throughout the whole competition, although I know there are no judges from China sitting on the panel when their girls compete.
The uneven bars tiebreaker controversy was ridiculous. Bothgirls excelled and delivered beautiful routines and bothgirls deserve gold medals. There is no reason why gymnastics should not issue gold medals; I feel as though a factor that comes down to warped etiquette or an obsession with perfection prevents two girls from sharing a podium. Karolyi has a valid point when he says the balance of the judging system is thrown off by the tiebreaker; gymnastics is a subjective sport and reducing the number of scores reduces the range of this subjectivity.
Amid the faults on vault and controversial ties, I did truly enjoy some moments in the last two nights of individual events. First was Oksana Chusovitina, a 33-year-old who moved from Uzbekistan to Germany to get better medical treatment for her young son, winning silver on vault. Her son Alisher, who suffers from leukemia, seems to be the driving force behind her campaign for Germany, and I enjoyed seeing someone with such a cause stand on the podium.
Second was 18-year-old Romanian Sandra Izbaşa winning floor. Performing last, she delivered a passionate, energetic and technically-excellent routine. She hadn’t been a popular name in the competition until this point, but she edged in front of American Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin for gold. Izbaşa actually appeared to have a similar style to Liukin: graceful, with long lines that emphasized her slender physique, also similar to Liukin.
Individual events continue today, August 19th, in Beijing. Women will compete for the balance beam title. Liukincurrently has the highest score on beam with her all-around performance, but after tonight, it’s very obvious that a statistic like that does not guarantee anything.