Memo to the IOC: Gymnastics Needs Sudden Death

Zander FreundSenior Writer IAugust 19, 2008

After an exhausting day of moderating Alan Bass's latest article and assuring L.J. that Bleacher Report wasn't going to give the boot to the network's lesser-known writers, I finally managed to climb into bed last night and turn on some Olympics. 

Any stressful loose ends walking around my brain vacated the premises instantaneously, as I admired the beauty of this once-in-every-four years global sporting event.  I smiled as Tosta Sheena won her heat for the U.S. in the Women's 400m Hurdles Semifinals, then laughed full heartedly as Angelo Taylor thanked God for the opportunity to make a welcome mat out of his contemporaries for his second career gold medal. 

NBC then rolled out a replay of the Women's Gymnastics Uneven Bars Final that I had missed from the previous evening.  After some eye opening acrobatics and breathtaking balancing—courtesy of various talented ladies ranging between the ages of seven-and-a-half to 18—a controversy arose that made the heart of every fan watching sink like a stone.

Through their amazing performances, U.S. Gymnast Nastia Liukin and He Kexin had both put up scores of 16.725.  What now? 

A tie-breaking procedure soon gave Kexin the victory, along with a gold medal surely valuable enough to barter for a lifetime supply of pacifiers and Cabbage Patch dolls.  Minutes later, the broadcast was over and we were back at the station with Bob Costas and world famous gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi.

Karolyi then broke down the tiebreaker decision to the Olympic viewers of the world.  He was less than pleased:

This is just adding to the already brewing controversy and frustration in the heart of the athletes and including the viewers.  This new scoring system generated a murky situation which nobody understands, clearly…obviously, first of all, taking away what was the trademark of this gymnastics—the perfect 10—is gone. 

But even worse than that one, the direct participation of the viewers knowing and understanding the scoring system is gone.  So everybody's just guessing: what is that?  Why that score?  What is happening on the floor?

And I believe the latest, is this: which is introducing and accepting a tiebreaking procedure which is totally unfair.  And is absolutely ridiculous.  At a time when this very Olympic games can't give out medals for winning athletes at the same position—two gold, two silver, two bronze—in gymnastics cannot be done?  In gymnastics is refusing this general idea of the Olympic spirit?


Bob Costas then asked Karolyi to clarify that if he himself had been judge, jury, and executioner of the event, he would have given gold medals to both Liukin and Kexin.

Here's what Bela said in response:

That was obvious...these two young ladies were the very best uneven bar performance in the world.  Congratulations for them, they've done nothing wrong.

But, they've certainly deserved, at the time when finally the judging opinion is presiding in the same place, sure you got to give them what they deserve to have.

And here's what I have to say to Karolyi: Ever watch American football?

Karolyi rightfully backs the notion that no champion, in any competitive sport, should ever be chosen via mathematical formula.

But he completely misses the boat on another inherent truth about competitive sport that should never to be manipulated: in a championship match, there is always a winner.

Unlike many things in life, competitive sport is a zero sum game—one person (or team) wins at the expense of another's loss.  From a viewers perspective, this gives us ordinary people an outlet for the not-so-friendly part of our inner being that longs to see failure and success stacked nose-to-nose against one another.

Tom Brady lost the Super Bowl last season because the Giants' defense won; the Celtics shocked the world of hoops because Kobe Bryant choked. 

Rafael Nadal lost Wimbledon each of the last three years because of Roger Federer's dominating play—until this year, where Federer finally fell due to Rafa's athletic brilliance.

Zero sum games are not always preferable in "real life," but they are the ultimate ideal in competitive sport. In the words of the great Vince Lombardi: Winning isn't everything—it's the only thing.

If you don't want to win, you don't belong on the field.  Or in this case...the floor.

Make no mistake about it; the two gymnasts who exceeded the efforts of their peers last night wanted to win more than anything in the world.  They have trained for this event all their lives; they did not show up prepared for silver or a shared gold.

Think about it this way: Would you want to see two professional ball clubs share the World Series trophy?

The Olympics are no different than any other sport in this regard; it is an athletic competition where viewers twitch in their seats with baited breath and sweaty palms, in eager anticipation of a champion who is the very best at what he or she does.   

If we were to go back in time and adopt Karolyi's philosophy into our favorite American pastimes, Bill Mazeroski would have never hit that unforgettable home run off Ralph Terry, and Alan Ameche would have never made that infamous run into the end zone at Yankee Stadium.

Hesitation to select a sole winner in a monolith sporting event such as Olympic Gymnastics is downright shameful.  If I were in charge of the IOC, I'd tell Liukin and Kexin to get their butts back up on those bars:

"Both of you have proven without a doubt that your abilities are far beyond that of your peers.  Through your mutual success, you now find yourself here. 

"Now, it is time for one of you to fail and one of you to succeed; one of you to go home crying and broken, and the other to go home with a shiny new gold medal. 

"May the weaker of you two screw up the dismount."


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