Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Down With Judged Olympic Competition

The whole idea of the Olympics -- to athletes, not to politicians -- is to get the best together in one place and have a show-down, so everyone would know the true champion. The events that most grip us are those in which the competition is fiercely contested, but the result is not in doubt: the controversy has been resolved, and we know. We know.

Competition is fierce. In some cases the unaided eyes of bystanders might disagree which sprinter crossed the line first, but for that we have cameras at all angles and slow-motion. And thank goodness! In some events, movements are so lightning-fast that winners can be discerned only by special outfits designed to tell a scoring sensor which fencer was first struck, or whether a hit was scorable or outside the fair zone. But these corner-cases, requiring technological assistance to see the victory, don't dilute what the event is about: proving to any careful observer who's best. In some events, that means fastest. In others, furthest. Or most accurate.

The the rowers, the high-jumpers, the runners, the swimmers -- sometimes they win by such a margin it takes one's breath away to see it at this level of competition, and sometimes it's such a nail-biter one can't breathe, but all of them know who the winner is, if only from the clocks and cameras and garment sensors. At the Olympics, however, there is a funny creature. There is a kind of "sport" where laymen watching -- with or without cameras -- often can't tell at all which of two amazing performances is best. And there the problem lies.

Do events requiring expert opinion to ascertain the victors have a place in sport competition? How can the events be called games if hard-and-fast rules can't be applied by any replay observer? I can recall when I first realized the women's gymnastics floor exercise score included points awarded for artistry. Artistry? Sure, it can be pretty -- so is diving -- but is this what the Olympics is about? Should a gold medal performance turn on the work of an absent choreographer? In fairness, ought the choreographer get a medal? Suppose the judged athlete was truly perfect in the execution of every technique, but lost because a better-funded competitor had a well-liked (among judges, anyway) choreographer to supply a prettier (to judges) arrangement of the exact same techniques. Why on Earth should she lose because her team didn't have the same choreographer?

Are we at a dance recital or an sporting competition?

Would that this were the end of the troubles. Judged events means that concerns like politics, pecuniary incentives, and prejudices will factor into results. One might imagine that boxing should have a clear winner, but enough matches are decided by decision of judges that even matches that aren't close are subject to controversy. When judges from Uruguay, Morocco, and Uganda outvoted Soviet and Hungarian colleagues to award Korean Park Si Hun the boxing gold, everyone knew who had really won: observers of the numerous right hooks Roy Jones landed on Park's face knew it, uninvolved ringside judges knew it, Park apologized to Roy Jones and said Jones had won but the officials had given him the medal anyway -- and raised Jones' hand on the award podium to show it. The whole world knew. See it yourself. There was a protest filed, but Jones' coach pointed out that "as you know, we don't do too well on protests."

This isn't a fluke. This is business-as-usual in judged competition. Whether the currency is event votes or political advantage or ... well ... currency, there will be sales of votes and outcomes at odds with clearly-observable facts. Take outcomes like this: "Our [skater] fell, the Canadians were ten times better, and in spite of that, the French with their vote gave us first place." Figure-skating might be particularly susceptible to this kind of results-gaming -- after all, there's no way to objectively score it so cheating judges should feel especially safe -- but it's by far not alone. Given the money to be made in marketing, co-branding, sponsorship, and so on, it's clear that parties can have powerful incentives to rig results. And given the national pride of judges whose personal fortunes at home turn in part on the success of their countrymen in the games (events with little draw at home will naturally have less need of officials), it's obvious that non-blinded judging is doomed to yield scams rather than consistently objective athletic results.

Events like the decathalon might have complex scoring formulae, but anyone with a calculator and a sheet of the rules can work out the score of an athlete, given the facts -- discernible from cameras and stopwathes -- about the times and distances involved in the athletic feats.

Not so, gymnastics. Even when you know the start values and the schedule of deductions, it's obvious that the judging in Beijing isn't the same as that occurring on scorecards at home. I understand that stepping out of bounds is a one-tenth deduction unless both feet are involved, in which case it's more. Seeing a competitor step out of bounds with one foot three times, I expected a deduction of 0.3, at minimum. Ahh, no. Apparently 0.1 x 3 is 0.1 in China sometimes. How do they figure this stuff out? And that's the problem: folks with squeaker margins of victory based on scoring systems no observer can replicate doesn't really give you the feeling you are seeing the truth revealed about the most superior athletes in the world. It gives, instead, the feeling you are watching a kind of Battle of the Bands, where the judging isn't by audience response on an applause-o-meter, but by professionals doing business with the bands' managers.

Given the money to be made on Wheaties boxes, I'd think such business must be worth quite a bit. Eliminating competition from the rounds in which one's allies will compete certainly can't hurt. Flat-out lying on the part of judges cheats athletes who do good work, and it undermines the seriousness with which observers take the games. Consider the North Korean woman whose vault errors caused her to land out of bounds, and to land not on her feet -- perhaps with a little bounce or a step -- but on her knees. Exactly how was she entitled to pass a skilled veteran competing for Germany was never even explained by anyone casting a vote. Bela Karolyi may not be unbiased, but he offers an analysis that smacks of brutal honesty. After talking frankly about the 12-to-14-year-old female gymnasts China fielded (with Chinese-supplied paperwork as proof of having reached 16, at which as a former Soviet-bloc resident he waved his hands in disdain), he summed up the women's vaulting final as a ripoff.

Apparently the Australians have suggested barring judges from scoring events in which their own countrymen compete. I think this line of reasoning, if carried far enough to plausibly work, would lead to analysis of international political blocs, and would soon result in officials from countries that (a) have no political relations at all, and (b) have no expertise in the events being judged. The judges aren't from Mars after all, or Venus: they're from the internal sporting apparatuses of the various participant countries, and affected by anything that effects the nation's interest in their speciality sport.

My own initial impulse is to draw a line between artistic athletics and sport, and suggest some new non-sport venue for people who want to demonstrate skill in ice dancing or trampoline or juggling or gynmastics. Even if we went so far, we'd still not solve judging misconduct in boxing (unless we forced matches to go until knockout or surrender, as occurs in certain martial arts competitions), which is as much a competitive sport as fencing. And the solution in fencing offers another ray of hope. Perhaps the kind of technology that makes objective and quantifiable the conduct of combatants with blades can be brought to other disciplines. Boxing gloves with hit sensors might be useful, particularly if combined with sensor technology to ascertain whether strikes were landing on opponents' blocks or might be plausible hits.

Imagine gymnastic floor exercise conducted by competitors in sensor suits that transmit the position in space and the movement of every joint to a computer, which presents for scoring purposes an artificial-reality generic form to judges who cannot see the competitors and have no idea what uniforms they use. Perhaps this kind of system would allow the best-qualified judges to correct computerized systems' judgment of in-bounds, stuck landings, and the number of degrees in a particular turn. Maybe there's a way to have fair competition.

But ... I wonder. Judges who've seen a floor exercise routine will know it whether they see it on computer or with their own eyes. And is the Olympic Games really the proper place to hold what amounts to a Battle of the Bands for gymnastic performers, skate-clad dancers, and the like? Making cracks about race-walking or curling is all well and good, but at least you can tell when you look at the film who won. I've spent enough time in my life watching opera, modern dance, ballet, martial arts presentations, and other artistic performances to defend myself against the charge I don't adequately love difficult-to-perform artistic performance. I'm crazy about the arts. I'm just not crazy about pretending there's an objective superiority between artists when there's not yet a stadard by which that is true.

We'll continue to need refs to call out-of-bounds when the balls fly out of the court. We'll continue to need refs to call personal fouls. We should not need judges in sport, just referees to keep the sportsmen sportsmanlike. My modest proposal is to move judged events to an artistic competition, and keep the Olympic games for sports with victors. When someone presents an outfit that allows objective scoring of acrobatics, or a scoring system that makes objective the mystifying and inconsistent lack of application of rules to diving and gymnastics, then we can have a look at the scoring systems and call these things sports.

Until that day, known-flawed judging systems stand unworthy of the respect we should want to accord Olympic games, and we should reject them. Bring these folks to town and I'll buy a ticket, but until there's a scheme that can be replicated don't tell me it's a sport and not an art.

And for God's sake, put sensors in the boxing gloves and fire the judges.

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