Do you think it's likely that the unfair judging in Olympic gymnastics could be mafia related?
August 19, 2008 9:29 PM   Subscribe

How likely is it that the unfair judging in Olympic gymnastics is mafia related?

It seems pretty clear to me (and many others) that certain athletes were favored in Beijing, even when they made clear mistakes.

For example, the bronze medalist on women's vault only landed one out of two of her vaults--and she still medaled! This bias seemed to apply across all events. However, if I understand correctly the same teams of judges don't judge the same events, i.e. the vault judge and beam events will have different judging teams. Furthermore, a judging panel cannot included judges from the same country as an it would seem that the judges wouldn't have a lot of political incentive to favor one athlete over another.

This had me imaging some Tony Soprano-like scenarios. What do you think the chances might be that some threats were communicated, i.e. "She scores well...or you're toast"? What are some other scenarios to explain the blatant bias?
posted by mintchip to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (36 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, back in 2002, there was that whole skating thing. (Because the scoring there isn't bizarrely crooked enough as it is.)
posted by el_lupino at 9:35 PM on August 19, 2008

Oh, please. What I've noticed is that the US commentators attitude has been: if a US gymnast does well, it's obviously because of how awesome and perfect their routine was, but if gymnasts from other countries do well (in particular, China) it's obviously due to a bias. In the case you mention, Chung Fai's first vault was simply amazing and while her second vault's landing was rather bad, she lost points both from her execution score and her difficulty score for that. It might reflect some bias on the part of the judging towards gymnasts who take greater risks and have higher starting values, but any systemic bias because of mafia-related reasons? Come on.
posted by peacheater at 9:41 PM on August 19, 2008 [13 favorites]

Before you start looking for bias (I watched a lot of the gymnastics, and didn't see any), are you sure you understand how the judging works?

Competitors are marked on two scores:

'A' score: a mark derived by looking at the difficulty of the routine. It's a cumulative mark that starts from 0; harder routines score higher. Doing a reverse pike dismount off the uneven bars gets a higher mark than a forward somersault, for example. Combinations increase the difficulty. From watching the Olympics, it looks like most difficulty marks are in the 5.5-6.5 range for women.

'B' score: marked like French dictation; you start from 10, and incur deductions for various penalties such as falling, poor form, stepping out of bounds on floor, etc.

The two sets of marks are provided by two separate sets of judges, which makes collusion more difficult. The 'A' judges can go to video replay to compute the difficulty score, while the 'B' judges have to mark in the moment. This is why a lot of the gymnastics scores took so long to be posted.

Finally, the marks are added together to arrive at the final score. This is why you can bobble the landing on a vault and still end up with a higher score; if your initial difficulty is at or near the top of the field, you have some wiggle room. If you watched the women's individual all-around, you would have heard the commentators noting this, and noting that the very best women would often step on a landing--but they could afford the .100 deduction, because the starting difficulty was .500 higher than the other competitors.

This was all implemented due to the judging scandals at the 2004 Olympics.

Now, as to your question.

For someone to ensure that their athlete wins/gets a medal, they would have to threaten several of the judges on both sides.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:45 PM on August 19, 2008 [13 favorites]

Also, on postview, what peacheater said. This is part of why CBC coverage of the Olympics is far, far superior to NBC's.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:47 PM on August 19, 2008

Let me try to answer your question by reformulating your question:

Do you think it's likely that the results of certain subjectively judged athletic activities are judged subjectively?

How likely is it that the unexpected (by me) scores given by some judges to the performance of some gymnasts were determined by non-objective standards?

It seems pretty clear to me (and many others) that Olympic gymnastics isn't really a sport in the same sense in which we use the word "sport" to refer to a lot of other athletic activities.

For example, the bronze medalist

ok, I won't go on.
posted by staggernation at 9:48 PM on August 19, 2008

Another reason for the new approach to scoring was because the old approach was running out of ceiling. Unless a gymnast pretty seriously botched their routine, then nearly every routine scored 9.8 or higher. Since scoring used to be in steps of 0.05, that meant that everyone was squeezed into five steps. That just wasn't enough.

Eventually someone got a "perfect 10". Then someone else did, and pretty soon you started seeing a lot of those, which represented something of a crisis.

One of the desirable consequences of this new approach is that there is no nominal maximum score. They haven't traded "perfect 10" for "perfect 16". But in exchange for that, they've made the scoring more confusing for people who are used to the old approach which only took into account the quality of the performance and didn't formally take into account the difficulty.
posted by Class Goat at 9:55 PM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

staggernation: how likely is it that you're not a gymnastics expert, and therefore 'unexpected' results are actually the byproduct of that lack of expertise?

I don't recall a lot of surprise coming from the commentators on any events.

(I do agree that anything judged subjectively isn't a 'sport' in the same way that things measured objectively are, though.)
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:56 PM on August 19, 2008

Indeed, Class Goat, the perfect 10 still exists. Part of me wonders whether this confusion would be ameliorated by dividing the total score in the same way they do in figure skating. Show, separately, the Difficulty score and the Execution score. It would also be easier to then say "Look! She got a perfect 10 on her execution!"
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:59 PM on August 19, 2008

Well the fact that judges can officiate at events that contain athletes from their own nation suggests in and of itself that the system needs overhauling. And claims of bias are not just confined to gymnastics either, apparently.

I know very little about how to judge a sport, except tennis maybe, because I love tennis. So aside from my comments just now about a bit of an overhaul being required, I can't say one way or the other if performances have been particuarly shoddy. What I will say though is that I have noticed much the same thing from my own country's sporting media as that mentioned by peacheater upthread. And I dare say it's the same in every country, not just the US and Australia, and every sport, not just the Olympics (which are high stakes enough as it is). Your team does well, it's becuase your team rocks, of course. Your team does bad, its because we wuz robbed.

This of course does not preclude that the mafi could be involved. But I think that before you go saying Olympic judges were made offers they couldn't refuse, you need to consider other elements of sporting commentary/judging as well.
posted by Effigy2000 at 10:10 PM on August 19, 2008

the scoring isn't really as arbitrary as you might think. if you look at the scoring rules (go here, on the sidebar follow Code of Points -> WAG -> English (or whatever your language of choice is)) you'll see a few things. one, that the degree of difficulty for a particular element are very clearly spelled out, and two, that the dings for mistakes are also clearly spelled out.

if you look on page 24 of that document you'll see the dings for landing failures. the worst possible ones are if you fall after landing on your feet, for -0.8 points. (if your first contact with the ground is not with your feet (ouch) then you get 0 points). the score is difficulty + execution, so even a fall (-0.8 points) can be compensated for by having tried a more difficult routine.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 10:14 PM on August 19, 2008

Your team does well, it's becuase your team rocks, of course. Your team does bad, its because we wuz robbed.

Not really in Canada.

Two cases in point:

1) The men's triathlon. Our athlete put on an unbelievable burst of speed in the last ~250M. He almost won; the German athlete came from behind and got the gold. Our commentators said things like "Wow! An incredible finish for the German!" and "he [our athlete] tried but he didn't have quite enough to make it"

2) Men's trampoline. We were leading up until the final (Chinese) competitor; we got the silver. Commentators said things like "Wow, what an amazing finish, silver!" and so on.

I could go on--mens 3m springboard diving would be another, and more apt, example.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:19 PM on August 19, 2008

I think people are being unduly harsh on the OP. While it's true that much can be explained simply by lack of knowledge of how scoring works or whatever, it's also true that there is a long history of extremely dubious (and occasionally criminal) judging in the Olympics. There's a reason that the East German judge became a cliche.

The judging of the boxing has been particularly questionable.

mintchip: It's highly unlikely there is any organized crime involvement (but not totally impossible as the ice dancing fiasco in the first comment shows). But the possibilities for mischief vary greatly between sports because some are judged objectively and some subjectively. Possibilities for mischief in the javelin throw? Very low. Possibilities for mischief in ice dancing? Very high to the point that it is laughable. Possibilities for mischief in gymnastics? Low side of moderate.
posted by Justinian at 10:27 PM on August 19, 2008

I read a book about the Kray Twins, who were once asked if horse races were fixed. The answer came back that yes, it happened, but it happened very rarely indeed. The key was knowing which race was fixed -- and betting on it.

So, is it possible that Olympic results are influenced by the Mafia, in order to make money gambling? Of course it is. But is it likely that it would be widespread? I think not. The best strategy would simply be to fix one event which was easy to fix (find the judges with the guilty secrets/bad habits/gambling debts) and make your money on that one.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:31 PM on August 19, 2008

When I saw this event, I actually thought the same thing, and considered asking the same thing as well. I figured out, as everyone else has mentioned, that even though she fell, the difficulty points through the score up into the medaling position. Is there a mafia influence? Absolutely not. Is there a screwed up scoring method? I sure think so. Can you imagine a snowboarder trying some impossible trick, falling, and then winning because A) what he did when he was in the air looked good and B) man, that trick sure was impossible and he had the nerve to try? Pretty bizarre way to score. The gold medal winner was awesome, I was just a little unsure how the bronze medal winner, uh, won the bronze medal...
posted by papayaninja at 10:54 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's not exactly how it works, papaya.

You get X points in your A score for the difficulty.

You lose Y points in your B score for errors.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:58 PM on August 19, 2008

Even NBC explained this, though I could easily have misunderstood Costas's rambling explanation and Bela Karolyi's histrionics. Anyway, what I gather is this:

When you do Olympic gymnastics, or at least the individual events, they make sure that none of the judges right there and then are of your nationality.

So in a rotation with the US, China, Russia, and Romania, this means that none of the judges can be American, Chinese, Russian, or Romanian; all places that have or in recent memory had powerhouse internal gymnastics programs where the judges can be expected to see world-class routines pretty regularly. So instead, you get judges from other countries whose competence at judging between world-class gymnasts is just not as high because they don't see performances at that level as often.

No mafia needed. Just blowback from a probably good-faith attempt to keep nationalism out of the judging.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:06 PM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

papaya, from what I gather what you're missing is that you only get the difficulty points for things you successfully complete.

So I, a sedentary fat slob, can't enter Olympic gymnastics, claim that I'm going to leap 100 meters into the air, give birth to Nyarlathotep and several shoggoths through my nose, spin around fast enough to cause visible relativistic effects, and land on my erect penis thereby making it whistle "Dixie," get 6.02E+23 difficulty points, and win the gold medal even though my actual performance will consist entirely of falling over clumsily while attempting to moon the judges.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:16 PM on August 19, 2008 [13 favorites]

One way of looking at the problem is from the point of view of the Mafia (or whatever shady organisation you are considering attributing). How much would it cost to bribe the judges, how much could be made by fixing the results and what are the chances of discovery? I suspect there are many safer ways of making money.
posted by rongorongo at 12:12 AM on August 20, 2008

I think the thing with the women's vault was that the Chinese gymnast's vault was not just flawed in the landing- she had been off balance and was not so strong technically when she hit the table, which led to her pretty obvious fall. The NBC commentators, at least those who were gymnasts, said she didn't get the deductions she should have for the earlier errors. That could certainly be explained by less experienced judges. No knock to say, South Africa, but they are not world-renowned for the quality of their gymnastics. Their top judges are probably not as experienced or as quick at judging that in-the-moment execution.

Incidentally, the NBC coverage displays the difficulty and execution scores when they show the scores- this makes the scoring easier to understand. I'm not a big gymnastics follower and I've found the scoring fairly easy to follow. I think that this new system has some kinks to work out, trying to quantify an objective thing, but I think it isn't terribly broken either. New complicated system, less experienced judges, lots of great gymnasts: not a mafia ploy, I don't think.
posted by MadamM at 12:43 AM on August 20, 2008

papaya, from what I gather what you're missing is that you only get the difficulty points for things you successfully complete.

Precisely. When (my other new boyfriend) Fabian Hambuschen fell off the high bar, he got 0 points for the move he was attempting, as well as a deduction for the fall. He then got full points for attempt & execution when he got back up and did it flawlessly.

An error--say, a step on the landing--means a deduction from your execution score but not change to the difficulty score.

A complete fuckup--like utterly failing to land--means a deduction to your execution score and a 0 for that element on the difficulty score.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:47 AM on August 20, 2008

the scoring isn't really as arbitrary as you might think.

OTOH, there's no transparency at all. All you get is a final execution score from each judge, and you have to guess where they found the deductions. Should there really be 0.3 differences between execution scores for the same athlete on the same routine?
posted by smackfu at 5:40 AM on August 20, 2008

papaya, from what I gather what you're missing is that you only get the difficulty points for things you successfully complete.

I think the problem people are having with this Olympics is the very broad view of "successful" in that sentence.
posted by smackfu at 5:42 AM on August 20, 2008

I'm a professional figure skating coach who has taken a lot of seminars in the unbelievably complex new judging system. While more detailed and complex than the gymnastics one it has some things in common, including combining a start score for difficulty with another score for execution. Within the execution score there are a range of choices combining completely subjective ones with standard as well as mandatory deductions. The judging panel itself is also complex, in both sports, and includes a caller (who identifies the skill), a technical specialist, who assigns the base score, and the actual judges who judge only the execution. In figure skating the entire judging panel sit together, but I gather that in gymnastics they are actually physically separated.

While coaches in particular have figured out how to game this system (for instance by gambling with higher start values) and judges have also figured out which scores they can inflate, because of the number of variables involved, the split second decision making required, and the incremental nature of the point accumulation it is much much harder now for judges to cheat. What seems impenetrable and incomprehensible to us has actually made the scoring more transparent to those in the sport. Having been through the very beginning stages of the training, and watching friends get more advanced training, I can tell you that, in figure skating at least and I'm sure in other subjective sports as well, the training is comprehensive, grueling, requires massive intelligence, diligence and commitment, and is taken very seriously by the judges and the federation alike.

There's lot at stake. Bad people will attempt to cheat. But the new judging systems are making it a lot harder.
posted by nax at 8:07 AM on August 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

OTOH, there's no transparency at all.

On a point of contrast, they introduced a 'transparent' scoring system for boxing, replacing round scoring with a rolling points total -- if three out of five judges press the button to register a clean punch within a second, the boxer gets a point. That's been subject to protest too. There's no silver bullet for judged events.

No knock to say, South Africa, but they are not world-renowned for the quality of their gymnastics.

Obviously, a South African judge has no way of seeing the world's leading gymnasts, what with the tractor beam preventing travel to championships and the nationwide ban on televisions, DVD and the internets.

Americans think the Olympics end when the gymnastics are over. British viewers think they begin when the athletics begin. When you invest so much in a judged event, them's the breaks.
posted by holgate at 8:18 AM on August 20, 2008

There's no silver bullet for judged events.

Actually there is. Viewing fixed (to avoid issues with operators) multiple-angle high-def slow-mo video after the match/routine to calculate who did what. I really will never understand the intense aversion to double-checking via replay that pervades so many sports.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:38 AM on August 20, 2008

I really will never understand the intense aversion to double-checking via replay that pervades so many sports.

The biggest complaints that I have heard stem from replay slowing down the games and making referees less decisive about their calls.
posted by mmascolino at 8:55 AM on August 20, 2008

But that's irrelevant in judged competitions. let a couple of boxers slug it out for however many rounds they slug it out for. Consult the video, tot up the points.

Or, hell, move to the fencing model. Fencing (apart from a spectacular scandal back in 76) has largely eliminated the need for judging, per se, by leveraging bloody simple technology. And competitors can call for a video replay on any call.

Could do the same with boxing; embed sensors in the gloves, require a certain percentage of sensors to fire to score a hit, go to replay in case of dispute.

There is, however, no reason for something like gymnastics (or diving, or synchro swimming) to not be marked fully from instant replay.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:31 AM on August 20, 2008

True...less decisiveness is not an issue for judged competitions but for things like basketball/football/baseball/etc. certainly would.

As for boxing sensors, here is King Kaufman on the absurdities of the current system. The sensors would have to be more sophisticated than just registering a punch.
posted by mmascolino at 10:02 AM on August 20, 2008

No, no, I get all that, but my point is, if you fall to your knees instead of landing on your feet, nothing should be counted at all. You fell, you didn't land, the end. From Wikipedia: "The judges work from a 10.0 base execution score and deduct for errors in form, technique, height, amplitude, execution and landing."

So your form and height, for example, can be good so you still don't lose points, but you can land totally off and only lose .1 or .3 points or so. Back to the snowboarding analogy, if I go off a halfpipe and do a 1080 but fall on my face, I'd still get points because I went high and did the proper number of spins. Plus, I'd get difficulty points for stringing together a good 'mount' if you will, or actually taking off, plus completing the spins while in the air. This is all what I gather from Wikipedia, so who knows...?
posted by papayaninja at 11:24 AM on August 20, 2008

There is a difference between falling to your knees (almost landing) and landing on your face (not even close). The rules at the site listed above are quite, quite comprehensive.

Basically it boils down to: elements in the air are hard, and you are marked on how well you execute the flips and twists. Landing is hard, and you are marked on how well you land. They are separate elements.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:28 AM on August 20, 2008

I think one could hope--despite, yes, some past evidence to the contrary--that for the most part judges will put their love of the sport before any nationalistic concerns. They have a responsibility that we, as random commenters on a website, don't have.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:30 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Actually, papayaninja, there's an even better way to explain it.

Bobbling the landing is like cooking a very difficult and delicious dish, but not plating it very nicely. The sublime delicious dish is going to win over bacon and eggs, no matter how nicely the bacon and eggs is plated.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:03 PM on August 20, 2008

If you fall off the apparatus you get marked down for the fall on your execution score, and you don't get credit for the skill that you fell from. Not a bad score-- a zero score, charged to your level of difficulty. Same in figure skating. You have to land, even badly, to get scored. If you fall on the landing before rotation is complete, you get no mark for that skill-- a zero, taking your baseline down.
posted by nax at 2:47 PM on August 20, 2008

leveraging bloody simple technology

I personally think they should do this for track and field events, particularly the sprints. It would be trivial to attach a sensor to the starting block--when your foot is off the block, the timer starts. Everyone races against their own timer, not against each other, because in the end, it's the time that's what's counted, not their position.

This would completely eliminate false starts and provide a perfectly fair system, since the runners aren't actually competing against each other but themselves.

Auto-X car racing works on the same principal.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:29 PM on August 20, 2008

Bobbling the landing is like mixing the ingredients of a difficult and delicious dish, then burning it in the oven.

I'm taking a driving test. I pull out of my parking space. There's a difficulty point. I do it perfectly, my execution stays a 10.0. I pull out of the DMV perfectly. A-Score: 2, B-Score:10.0. I screw up a bit on my parallel park. A-Score: 2.6, B-Score: 9.8. And so on. At the tail end of my test I have an A-Score, the difficulty of my 'tricks,' of 7.6 and a B-Score, the execution of those tricks, of 9.2. Then, when I pull into the DMV I speed up and crash into the building. My execution drops to an 8.3, A and B scores add up to 15.9 and I pass my test.

It doesn't make any sense at all. I get how it works, it's just dumb.
posted by papayaninja at 8:02 PM on August 20, 2008

I get how it works, it's just dumb

I respectfully submit that you don't get how it works, sorry.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:49 AM on August 21, 2008

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