Saturday, May 23, 2009

I Have a Question....

What's in a Name?

In her book Letters to a Young Gymnast, Nadia Comaneci describes a crucial period in her career when the Romanian Gymnastics Federation nearly refused to let any gymnasts from her school in Onesti compete at the 1975 European Championships in favor of the older, less talented gymnasts of the Dinamo school.  She describes the way Bela Karolyi, ever the lion, campaigned furiously for her and her team mates to be able to compete in this major competition because;

"Only one year before the Olympics, it was an opportunity to attract international attention, which is vital if a gymnast wants to be scored to her fullest potential.  Only gymnasts who make names for themselves garner enough attention to impress upon the judges that they are worthy of watching and receiving high scores and even medals" 
(Comaneci, 11, 2004, Hyperion)

I was surprised and relieved to hear Nadia, who I think does her very best to be as egalitarian about many claims made about her sport and its people in this book,  refers to and wholly acknowledges the insane judging bias that was evident back in those days.  I have often been stunned and stupefied when watching old late-seventies and early eighties gymnastics competitions and witnessed the blatant favoritism of the 'known' gymnasts over the new gymnasts.  

Sometimes it wasn't even so much that the more famous gymnast was overscored, but the newer, younger gymnast was underscored.  I can remember seeing Kathy Johnson in the early years of her career doing an utterly stunning floor routine and receiving a mere 9.6, while other girls, whose work was no better, if no worse, rank higher with 9.8's and even 9.9's simply because the U.S.A was not one of THE gymnastics nations (yet) and she was not one of their star gymnasts.

 Judging bias was appallingly obvious in those days.
But what of now?
I ask this because I am reading the Nadia book (finally!) but also because today I re-watched the European floor finals and was quite stunned and very put off by the British commentators discussion of Sandra Izbasa's low floor score.  
Now, before I get into it, I am not debating Sandra's score.  She didn't complete her twist. I am not that surprised because in the last year or so, she hasn't pulled off a properly performed triple for her beam dismount very often either.  I am sure this is just a symptom of growing into adulthood and adult size because she used to do a dang fine triple.

I was, however, quite upset with the way the commentators, who noted immediately that she may not get paid for all her tumbling, alluded to the fact as they awaited her score, that because Sandra was a big star and Olympic champion the judges may choose to turn a blind eye to an incomplete twist.  Would they?  Really?
See, I come from a country that suffers from a little ego disorder called Tall Poppy Syndrome, which is, when the flower gets too big, too tall, too bright and outshines all the others around it, we must cut it down so it doesn't get too big for its boots- that's why all our best people leave Australia, to find a place where they are appreciated.  ANYWAY, maybe due to being very used to this syndrome, I fully and completely expected the judges to mark Sandra as hard as they could, harder than anyone because she is the best. 
(I was, though, really upset with the commentators, when Izbasa was marked down, the two guys (where oh where was Christine dammit!) were acting all huffy and saying well, she shouldn't be expected to be treated better than anyone else just because she is Olympic champion.  They had no idea what Sandra or her coaches were thinking.  It was they that said she might be given a little leeway, not her!!!!  They also paid out on Forminte for making a scene.  He was merely questioning the judges about her mark.  What kind of coach wouldn't make an attempt to question and clarify the reason behind an unusually low score for their athlete.  Lawdy!)
 ( I also was raging that these commentators were also basically trying to say when they saw Sandra at Jesolo she was a bit porky, that at this Euros she was a shadow of her former self, and that when she did two similar tumbling passes it was 'boring' while when Tweddle did two kinds of Arabians it was simply because she "likes them'!!!!  Those commentators clearly had it in for Sandra that day.)

Anyway, despite these two commentators idiocy, I do agree there has always been a lot of talk of judges giving gifts to gymnasts even if I didn't think they were going to do it in this particular case at the Euros.  Many have said Khorkina was often overscored because of her star status.  NCAA fans have debated from time to time wether there is a judging bias in favor of the last team to possibly need any favors- the Georgia Gym Dogs.  Many, and I mean MANY people are still complaining about judges ignoring Nastia Liukin's form breaks.  And some say that nations like Romania get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to scoring.

Some of these I agree with. Some I don't.  But what I really want to know is, do we still think that the kind of bias, the one where you had to known, to have an public reputation before even entering an arena to succeed in the sport that existed in Nadia's early career still exists now?
Does the lesser known gymnast have less of a chance than anyone else?  I certainly think this is the case in NCAA.  Sometimes I can't pick a difference between a gymnast from some lower ranked college and one from a higher, yet there is always a disparity of a couple of tenths.  I think in the case of NCAA it is certainly about publicity, and its about the hype around certain teams and athletes.  But what about elite gymnastics?

More from Nadia; 

"That is not to say that the athletes who receive the most attention aren't the best at their sports, but being a great athlete will not bring medals unless you are noticed by the world."

So, what is in a name? Do we think that these days if, say, a young Taiwanese or Nigerian girl(just go with it a minute) walked into the world championships brandishing the same levels of difficulty and execution as the top ranked girls in the world, but without the 'the next Mary Lou Retton" or the "new Nadia" label or any other kind of hype surrounding her name, would she score the same? Would she have an equal chance at the medals?  
As a previously unknown, unheard of gymnast, would she be given the benefit of the doubt of her talent and have a chance at winning?  Do you think judging is that much more fair these days and depends solely on what is seen in the arena and not what is previously known?  That it is about the gymnastics and not the gymnasts?  I wonder...

What do you think?


  1. Today (as in post 2005) is pretty much as fair as it's ever going to get. You either have the difficulty and can complete it well or you don't. Granted, some bias cannot be changed (i.e. Beijing UB final)

    I re-watched the team qualies from Athens the other day and was pretty much disgusted by some of the scoring. Very, very subjective. It seems as if a routine with a lower start value was getting deducted at a higher rate simply because it was less difficult. The "old" system was much like this too. "Oh the judges know that move is very very difficult so she'll get full credit even with the balance check"

  2. oh and fyi your comments are broken again. "request could not be processed" etc

  3. I think that gymnasts from the most important country in gymnastics (like Romania) are always overscored!If there are two gymnasts (one from Usa and the other from France) with the same skills and the same executions the first will receive a higher score!!There are a lot of examples......
    Steliana Nistor VT Worlds 2007

    Federica Macrì VT Worlds 2007

  4. I think the biggest problem with judging these days is subconcious biases. Often judges'(and other people who have to judge, grade, or review something) perceptions are warped by first impressions. If a gymnast makes some errors on their first routine, the judges may "notice" mistakes that didn't really happen on a later routine. The same principle applies for gymnasts who gave a very good first impression.

    At this point, I think judging has come to a level of strictness that judges don't feel pressure to be lenient on gymnasts in fear of them not getting a gold medal or something like that. I think that happened in the 80's, if a judge didn't give a gymnast a perfect 10, they could have possibly not gotten the gold they were fighting for, or maybe not even gotten in the medals at all. Just imagine what could have happened if one judge (whose score was counted) gave one of the top 3 gymnasts in 1988 a 9.9. That could have dramatically changed the results!

    Sorry for the long rant-reply.

  5. I think having a name and being from the right country is far less important nowadays that in Nadia's time, but I still think that reputation counts for a lot in gymnastics. I think that if am amazing young gymnast from Taiwan or Nigeria came along, it would take her a great deal more to convince the judges to hand out a great score than it would for them to hand out high scores to a hyped up gymnast from a powerhouse nation such as Viktoria Komova or Jordyn Wieber.

    I think sometimes it may just be a subconscious thing, judges will probably automatically expect a good performance from gymnasts from the US, China, Russia, Romania etc, so may look at the routine at a different way from the beginning than a Nigerian routine, even if the quality is the same. Also, gymnasts from powerhouse nations often have more international exposure and therefore time to to make a name for themselves before they even turn senior. Gymnasts from e.g. Taiwan and Nigeria might only make name for themselves at/ after their first World Championships.

    Sorry if that was a bit waffly!

  6. Well, Onodi came out of nowhere to win the UB title at 1989 Euros, and she did really well for herself despite being Hungarian

  7. Oh yes, bias is alive and well; particularly at the lower levels. The number of times I have seen a girl with the perceived “body shape” get the attention while other girls with skills and a clean routine are marked down.

  8. It'd be really disingenuous to say that name didn't matter at all in gymnastics. There will inevitably be bias, twenty years before and twenty years from now. Witness, for example, Svetlana Korkina's uneven bars score in the Athens AA. She blatantly got that 9.7 because of her legacy. Now I love Khorky, but that was not her best routine.

  9. We would probably be foolish to assume it doesn't exist at all. Any time you turn a sport over to human interpretation, there will be bias, and bias in this case is built around reputation. However, it seems to me like it has improved substantially, even if some gymnasts are overscored or just not graded with such a tight hand on the rulebook.

  10. And re: Nastia. I don't think judges overlook her form breaks because of her reputation. I think they overlook it just because she has nice lines.

  11. It'ld take forever to list everyone who got medals because of their reputations. Gymnasts from the big four countries ( USA, China, Romania and Russia) have gotten some gifts in recent times. What annoys me is when they are overscored when they would've won without any favours anyway, just so they win by a bigger margin, like Liukins aa fx. A recent example that stands out for me is the 2006 AA. Dasha joura hit 4 routines, was charismatic and emotive yet only came 5th. Behind the likes of Ferrari, Bieger, Izbasa and Nistor. The 4 gymnasts that finshed ahead of ehr all had some serious form breaks on certain events. A poster called Legolas from GGMB did a detailed analysis that showed that in 06 Joura and Dykes were the only gymnasts scored accurately and every other girl in the top 8 had received overscoring. I can only attribute this to the nfact that they weren't from a gymnastics power. if anyone knows where the list is/has it I'ld love to see it again.

  12. I think Judges do turn a blind eye. I mean look at Nastia. Her legs are ALWAYS crossed when she twists. She doesn't get deducted for it. She has HORRIBLE legs on her giant swings and doesn't get deducted. Many other girls are not deducted for crossed legs and it bugs me out so much.