Tuesday, August 12, 2008


This video's about four minutes, nineteen seconds too long.

Being awarded with an unexpected bronze medal last night was an emotional end to a wild Olympic experience for the US men's gymnastics team. After Morgan and Paul Hamm both paced out, most experts discounted the team, but the boys bonded under the tried-and-true sports cliche "No one believes in us" and performed better than expected. The spiritual leader of the group--the gymnastics Cornelius Bennett if you will--kept calling the audience "baby" and praying, and the other fratty one said, "That's how we roll" about ten times. (Turns out these people really don't exist except for the Olympics. Someone at the Karolyi Ranch unfroze him from 2004, and no one remembered to tell him "That's how we roll" is not an acceptable thing to say anymore.) One of the hyper-critical announcers bleated, "You couldn't ask for anything more." Well, um, actually you could. Winning the gold.

Gymnastics powerhouse China of course won first prize, and there were a few casual mentions, both last night and tonight, that China being the host country had something to do with its uniform high scores. Aiding that kind of bias, which is only seen as inevitable in this event, is the fact that absolutely no one understands the way gymnastics is scored.

(Also, some of those Chinese girls are clearly twelve years old. That's against the rules of competition, and--touchy subject--the rules of me watching gymnastics. Part of the fun is watching girls who are twenty but look as if they're fifteen. My piece of mind takes a hit when the age of the girls is thrown into question. Quit fucking with me, China.)

Forget I said anything.

Anyway, since the rules were changed in 2004 in efforts to make the scoring more universal and objective, they have made less and less sense, to the point where the experts are telling us, "Uh, between a fifteen and a sixteen on this is pretty good." Absolutely no one understands how it works, including the athletes themselves.

The final score of an event is basically a combination of degree of difficulty and execution, but no one would be crazy enough to attempt something that is a 10.0 on difficulty--Olympians are attempting routines in the sixes--so you're already starting off with a perfect score being a mathematical impossibility. Judges deduct execution by portions of a point based on "small," "medium," and "large" errors, which are completely subjective. One judge might think that lack of extension on a kick-thingy is a .10 deduction, another might think it's a .25 deduction, and there is no consensus.

This system also does away with the concept of the perfect 10, which is the hallmark of gymnastics competition. The most unforgettable moments in events historically have been perfect 10's; it's kind of like saying, "Hey, football: no more hail mary come-from-behind touchdowns." The beautiful thing about gymnastics is its pursuit of excellence and perfect control of the body. Something about its ethos is damaged when that perfection is not only realistically impossible, but theoretically impossible as well.

More like a 16.7, loser.

No explanation for scores is offered, so people's purposes in life are crushed based on fractions of movements, and they have no real idea why they won or lost. I don't exactly feel sorry for them, but I feel sorry for the state of the athletic activity itself, because it's difficult to call it a sport.

Sports exist within a morally correct universe, in which everything truly happens for a reason. Even if the USA basketball team loses to Greece, if evil seemingly triumphs over good, I'll be able to watch the game again and point out exactly why we faltered and they succeeded. I could even reduce the game to a handful of plays in which they executed and bested us. Hard work is rewarded in sports, and teams succeed in an easily apparent, physical way under a system of rules to which both sides have agreed. Just as importantly, that dimension of sports exists within a world that has become more contrived, manufactured, and rigged, and sports are the only type of entertainment that is still profoundly unpredictable and improvisatory. Sports function as an uncorrupted sphere that modern life has rendered obsolete. Sports are not just a part of life; they're better than anything life can ever offer us by design.

The level of subjectivity introduced into gymnastics keeps it from achieving the type of satisfaction that other athletic competitions can. Sure, gymnastics provide great exercise and flexibility, and they can teach kids the same principles that sports do. But isn't it a shame that the technique of the activity is becoming more arbitrary? I'm not saying that keeping score is the only important thing in sports, but it's what make sports so meaningful to me, and it's easy to overlook that when you're too busy talking about how something is great exercise.

1 comment:

nicholas said...

I concur. Olympic gymnastics is a showcase for amazing athleticism and skill (the Chinese men on rings = brutal) but it's ruined when you have no idea why one near flawless performance merits a 16.75 and another seemingly identically one gets a 15.25. Shit, I can understand the score on synchronized diving better.