One of the mantras constantly thrown around in MMA is “never leave it in the hands of the judges”. The thought behind this is that MMA judges are so bad at their jobs that fighters simply cannot trust them to make even the most obvious calls.
While that is, perhaps, harsher than it should be, this animosity between fighters and promotions against Athletic Commission officials has been growing over years and years. While the judges make the correct call more than nine out of ten times, they get regularly needled for not being perfect. Referees have an even harder job, and also frequently find themselves the brunt of criticism when they do not make optimal decisions in split-second situations.
Judges and refs have found themselves as the antagonists of many MMA stories, but fighters and fans alike should be grateful. They are not nearly as bad as their Olympic counterparts.
Frankly, it is perplexing how consistently something gets botched in what is supposed to be a congregation of the world's best. Every combat sport thus far, including boxing, Judo, and fencing has seen an athlete cheated out of a spot on the podiums.
The individual athletes' stories tend to be heart-wrenching to read (or write about). Knowing that someone's entire life to that point has been dedicated to one goal and having it be for naught through no fault of their own is nothing short of tragic.
Take, for example, American Judoka Travis Stevens.
Twenty-six years old. Born in Bellevue, WA. He has been training in Judo since age six.
Over his twenty years on the tatami, he has suffered a slew of injuries to his head, neck, legs, and arms. His parents and grandparents currently cover his bills. His coach raises the funds for him to enter the competitions required to qualify for the Olympics. He would like to pursue an MBA, in order to start a business to help other Olympic Judo hopefuls, but all his time is allotted to training, putting his higher education hopes on the bench for now.
The storybook ending, of course, would be that the sacrifices of body, mind and time become worth it as he brings home the gold, and gets set for life with endorsement deals a la Apollo Ono, Summer Sanders or Kerri Strug. The reality, however, is that he stormed through his opponents from Slovenia, Georgia and Brazil and ended up facing off with famed German Ole Bischof to determine who would make up half of the gold medal match.
Shortly into their bout, the two hit the ground, with Bischof awkwardly landing on Stevens' face, opening a cut over his left eye. The two continued, with Stevens as the primary aggressor until Bischof poked Stevens in his right eye. Half-blind, Stevens avoided Bischof's throws. The two went to the Golden Score period (sudden death overtime, essentially) but ultimately, neither person scored.
With Stevens as the primary aggressor, and none of Bischof's throws coming any closer to a match-winning ippon than Stevens', the American was the clear-cut winner of the match. This was, unfortunately, obvious to everyone except for the judges.
There is a lengthy history of European judges favoring each others' athletes in the Olympics across all sports. The most notable example of this was in the 2002 Winter Olympics, where a French judge admitted to a conspiracy with Russian skating officials to massage each others' scores. Because of this, there is something of an open secret that they would show favor to their neighbors in close matches.
The fact that Ole Bischof is an A-list martial artist in Europe, courtesy of his gold medal from Beijing, and that all three judges were European (from Romania, Slovenia and the Netherlands) made it clear that Olympic politics were as much a factor in the decision as the actual match. Literally adding insult to his injuries, Stevens then had to face off with Canadian Antoine Valois-Fortier thirty-five minutes later in a bronze medal match. Clearly tired from his long battle with Bischof, Stevens ended up being outworked, and will return to America empty-handed.
With Judo rarely getting attention in America, courtesy of NBC's swimming- and gymnastics-focused coverage, Stevens' plight is largely unknown by the American public. The iota of attention that actually has been given to the sport has been almost exclusively dedicated to gold medalist Kayla Harrison.
Stevens' story, and the injustice therein, will go unnoticed by the American populace and uncared about by the rest of the world. Sad as Stevens' story is, his story is not unique, nor is it even the most egregious misdeed of these games so far.
Fencing is one of the less-eventful sports in the Olympics when it comes to controversies but that was certainly not the case in women's individual epee.
South Korean Shin A-Lam, like Travis Stevens, ended up in her sport's equivalent of overtime against a defending gold medalist from Germany, with a spot in the finals on the line. In fencing, a coin flip at the beginning determines who will advance should the match remain a draw.
Shin won the coin flip, and as time dwindled, the two faced off with one second left on the clock. With the fencers standing feet away from each other, there plain-and-simple was not enough time for German Britta Heidemann to bridge the gap, slip through Shin's guard and score a touch.
So, Heidemann lunged, and the two touched at the same time. No point.
Then, still with one second left, Heidemann lunged again. Once again, both touched. No point.
So, once again, the two lined up with one second left on the clock. This time, Heidemann beat back Shin's foil, scored a touch and celebrated avidly...with the clock still showing one second left.
That one second on the clock, in real life, lasted almost two minutes. The initial belief was that there was a defect with the clock that caused it to pause, but this has since been rebuked. The reality, allegedly, is that the clock, more or less, only ran on full seconds. This meant that all three of those exchanges took place in less than a second each, and as such, each exchange would leave that full second.
In reality, there was absolutely no way those three exchanges took place in under a second. In slow-motion replay, time seemed to run out before the winning touch even took place. But as is proven time and time again, reality has no place in the Games.
South Korean officials appealed the decision and the rightful winner was then forced, per the rules, to sit on the strip for over ninety minutes, as an athlete must stay on their field during an appeal. Shin broke down and cried inconsolably, all alone.
The decision was upheld and, like Stevens, Shin was wrongly placed in a bronze medal match. She, too, would lose.
As unfortunate as these two stories are, at least fans know who should have earned medals. Boxing has been so thoroughly mired with terrible decisions, poor refereeing, bad scoring and controversies with officials that nobody really knows how things would have played out if competency ruled.
The length of this already-sizable article would likely be doubled breaking down any number of the issues that have been unleashed on the world's populace in Olympic boxing. As such, you can read more about the individual incidents across Bleacher Report and around the web (this writer recommends this, this, this and this).
As a fan of combat sports, this writer has had moments of frustration with the judges when it comes to mixed martial arts. Suffice it to say, when one feels grateful for the seemingly-confused officials of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, that would probably mean the alternative is really bad.
“Really bad” is, for sure, the best description for Olympic officials thus far. When athletes have one shot at glory every four years (or, in many cases, once in a lifetime), judges should be nothing short of perfect. As they are, though, they are not even average.
While mixed martial arts has had more than its share of bad officiating, promotions like the UFC, historically, have made up for it in some way. In 2009, then-prospect Jon Jones was wrongly given a DQ loss during a bout against Matt Hamill. The UFC recognized the incorrect call and though Jones' official record was never changed, his path towards the light heavyweight championship did not go astray.
For Olympians, especially those in combat sports, there should be no errors. The International Olympic Committee, though, tolerates this and worse yet, has actively covered for their officials that have been in error, especially in boxing where they openly avoid accountability for bad scoring by concealing points as often as possible.
So next time a close decision does not go for your favored fighter, just remember. At least mixed martial artists get more than one chance in four years to show their skill. At least things like nationality do not end up a factor in decision-making. And at least it is not as bad as the Olympics.