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Judgment day

How to end the controversies: Drop subjective sports from the Games

Posted: Wednesday August 25, 2004 12:37PM; Updated: Wednesday August 25, 2004 5:08PM
Athens' Gymnastics Controversies
SI.com's E.M. Swift
I never thought I'd find a sport in which the judging was more suspect than figure skating, but gymnastics takes the prize. It didn't begin or end with the Yang Tae Young fiasco, in which the Korean's start value in the parallel bars of the men's all-around competition was incorrectly set at 9.9, perhaps costing him the gold.

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With apologies to those unmoved by the nightly exercise in unabashed patriotism that are the Olympics on NBC, The Blog feels compelled to offer a modest proposal meant not to savage, but to save.

To preface, The Blog has been a big Olympics fan since 1984, when the Games visited The Blog's home city of Los Angeles, and the hometown folks -- spooked by thoughts of gridlock and mayhem and financial ruin -- made for the hills in record numbers. My parents were among the fleeing, and so The Blog (and siblings) were packed up in the dead of night and cattle-driven seven hours north to the grandparents' home in Orinda, Calif., where the Armageddon could be watched from a safe distance. Instead, of course, the smog cleared, the San Gabriels glistened, the freeways flowed, the city made a freaking fortune and U.S. athletes dominated the Soviet-boycotted Games like never before (or since). It was those Games that gave the Olympics back its mojo.

Watching on television, it made The Blog proud to be an American. The brilliance of the U.S. men's water polo team kicking international ass in Malibu; of Joan Benoit Samuelson overcoming that hideous beige outfit to win the first women's marathon; and, especially, of Carl Lewis equaling the mythic Jesse Owens' mark of four golds in four events was undeniable. It all resonates still, because even without the Soviets, there were athletes who took hold of their destiny and triumphed -- who went faster, higher and stronger, clearly and without question. Even now, the notions are poignant: that four years of training and sacrifice come down to nanoseconds, eighths of inches and sudden-death overtimes, and that temporal finality always lurks in the shadows -- the knowledge that all that pain and suffering was for this moment ... and this moment only.

Which brings us to American gymnast (and ersatz all-around gold medalist) Paul Hamm, and brings The Blog to its point:

No athletic event that is judged belongs in the Olympics.

And no exceptions: No gymnastics. No ice skating or boxing. No synchronized swimming or diving. If it can't be won on the track, in the lane lines or with one more goal than the other folks, it has no place in the world's premier festival of sport, one that purports to give us the world's greatest champions. For if a win can't be unquestionably achieved, what's it worth, really? Without an objective, inarguable method for determining victory and defeat, the very meaning of the competition is lost. (After all, this isn't my niece's toddler soccer league, where one team scores 49 goals and the other scores two, then the exhausted competitors are told, Saturday after disillusioning Saturday, that it was a tie.) Without an absolutely certain outcome, an event such as, say, the men's gymnastics all-around, isn't a sport at all. It's a talent show.

(Disclaimer for the knee-jerk brigade: The Blog is not impugning the wondrous athleticism of world-class gymnasts, platform divers and bantamweights. At the Olympic level, they are physical marvels, able to do things that most of us would find more torturous than exhilarating. Problem is, there's one thing none of them will ever do: definitively win their competitions.)

Consider Hamm's "win" in the men's gymnastics all-around. A refresher: Hamm, ahead with three rotations left, bungles his vault landing, almost spilling into the judges' pit. All appears lost. He then kills his parallel-bars routine while those ahead of him stumble, and finally, needing a 9.746354 (The Blog approximates) for gold, sticks his high-bar dismount, nabs the necessary score and the U.S. (read: NBC) has its Story of the Games. Until, that is, we discover the next day that the bronze medalist, South Korea's Yang Tae-young, should've had a higher starting value on his parallel-bars routine and thus won gold.

Cue the farcical aftermath. Hamm has spent the last week proclaiming his innocence in that helium-addled voice of his, pointing to alleged mistakes made in Yang's routine that the judges missed. Before Hamm skipped town for an appearance on Letterman (and, presumably, the endorsement dollars he expects as America's gutty hero), he said, "No one should be upset with me. I came [to Athens] to make America proud. People will truly believe that I am the Olympic champion."

Well, maybe you are, Paul -- but maybe you're not. And that, for this Blog, just isn't good enough. First, consider the "winning" margin: 12 thousandths of a point. That a medal can be decided by such a miniscule margin is fine -- as long as it's decided purely by the athletes' performances. But it's patently absurd if that margin can be affected by when a judge may blink or sneeze. To say nothing of the fact that these decisions are being made by judges from different countries in a competition between different countries. While the ever-cynical Blog thinks the obvious -- that biases exist, that voting blocs are built -- isn't the mere possibility that such nefarious goings-on could occur (and have occurred) enough to invalidate the whole process?

After all, what country doesn't have a joke that ends with "and the [insert nation's archenemy] gave it a [insert bad score]"?

The Blog would like to think, after four years in the high-school quad, we'd all seen enough of the evils of judging. The Blog would like to think that the IOC could see for itself that when you're talking faster, higher, and stronger, you no longer need those folks in folding chairs, offering only bad blazers and reasons to doubt. The Blog would like to think that the Olympics are all about the undeniable guts and irrefutable tenacity of Morocco's Hicham el-Guerrouj, the world's best 1,500-meter runner over the past decade, who Tuesday night saw his long-delayed gold-medal quest finally satisfied with a win-by-a-nose over Kenyan Bernard Lagat.

As he lay on the track, crying tears of joy while Lagat held him close, el-Guerrouj was finally an Olympic champion. And no one needed a judge to see the genius.

Other Olympic thoughts

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• While the loss by the American duo of Dax Holdren and Stein Metzger to that vaunted global power Switzerland (Switzerland?) in the men's beach volleyball quarterfinals was a bummer, it was a particularly painful defeat for The Blog, since a medal for Holdren would've made all the more impressive The Blog's multiple victories (with scrappy backliner Troy Burnett) over Holdren (and some other guy) on the sands of UC-Santa Barbara's Campus Stadium courts in the early '90s. (Though The Blog retains pathetic-bragging-rights-while-soused with its victory [also with Burnett] over 2000 gold medalist Eric Fonoimoana, in a heated Saturday afternoon match in the Sigma Chi backyard court on El Greco Road in Isla Vista. Surely, the loss still keeps Fonoi up nights....) Though his name and look suggested the requisite onerous bully in every '80s teen flick, Dax was a good dude back then, and The Blog mourns his Olympic loss.

• While understanding of the Ameri-centric coverage (after all, it's not the InterNational Broadcasting Company), The Blog is a bit dismayed at the choices for jingoistic celebration. Conspicuously absent from the coronation have been arguably the Americans' most impressive cross-section: the womens' team sports. The U.S. vied or is vying (say that 10 times fast) for gold in softball, soccer, basketball and volleyball. And yet the vast majority of these successes haven't escaped the network's low minors (Bravo, USA, etc.) It's too bad, especially since the teams in question all feature mature athletes -- many with children of their own -- who are poster women for the girls who would desire long-term athletic success. While The Blog's mother has railed for years against the "child abuse" (her words) that produces our teenage female gymnastics and ice-skating heroes, health concerns be damned, she'll never get that to make it in prime time, it's about the "cute" factor.

Just ask the judges....

Three non-Olympics musings

1. Now that the NCAA has rejected Colorado wide receiver and Olympic moguls skier Jeremy Bloom's rightful bid to play football while accepting endorsement dollars to finance his ski training, things aren't looking very good for (soon-to-not-be) USC wideout Mike Williams.

2. Isn't it amazing that if Eric Gagne is anything less than perfect, the Dodgers suddenly seem as though they're all but dead?

3. Don't do it, Deion.

A T.O. interlude

After the many encouraging words received for its screed regarding Terrell Owens' opining in the September issue of Playboy on his former 49er teammate Jeff Garcia's sexual orientation, The Blog wanted to keep readers abreast of the responses of all concerned parties (among them the league office, the players' association, the Eagles' organization, the Browns' organization, etc.):

[Sounds of crickets, merrily chirping.]

But Owens sure did look good on that 81-yard touchdown pass against Baltimore in Philly last week on his first play as an Eagle. It's a testament to his fortitude that he could overcome such adversity to shine so brightly.

The dismount

Finally, The Blog gagged on its chamomile tea last Sunday, when the HBO dude intoned, "And now...the SEASON FINALE of...Da Ali G. Show...." As upsetting as it was, The Blog also realizes (as two or three of you might've surmised) its hopeless addiction to all things HBO, and that no more Ali might finally mean a better-adjusted and more productive Blog. It was all the more obvious when The Blog set about making a list of its top 10 television shows (non-sports, non-reality edition), and couldn't make it past five:

1. The Sopranos 
2. Da Ali G. Show
3. Deadwood
4. Arrested Development 
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm

While wondering what your rankings would look like, The Blog shudders at the thought that, without Home Box Office, it would crave just 30 minutes of television a week. (OK, besides a really good Amish In The City. ...)