Beijing Beat: Why Gymnastics’ New Scoring System Is Less Than Perfect

Women’s gymnastics has had several memorable Olympic champions, many of whom we can name like old friends. Olga Korbut was the first modern gymnast to captivate crowds. She enthralled viewers with her outgoing, charming personality and her daring moves at the Munich Games in ‘72. Her feats—a back flip on the uneven bars, the first flip on the balance beam, and devastating, flexible poses on the beam and floor—all helped push the sport into its current iteration of daredevil complexity.

But it was the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who transformed the sport. The moment the scoreboard flashed a 1.0 (as they were not calibrated to show 10.0 since no one had ever received the mark of perfection), gymnastics became the summer Olympics’ must-see event. The idea that perfection could exist in an sport rife with so many possibilities for error was awe-inspiring.

After Nadia’s first 10 on the uneven bars, she went on to score six more, taking home the All-Around medal, the highest honor in women’s gymnastics, and took home two other golds, in beam, and bars at the Montreal Games. After Nadia, Time and Newsweek put her on their cover, proclaiming, “She’s Perfect,” and “A Star Is Born.” Gymnastics enrollment in the United States skyrocketed. Her coach Bela Karolyi, shot to international fame, and now is one of the coaches for the U.S..

The point? Or rather, the many points? I don’t think Nadia, or the sport, would have be been given that shot of electricity if her score had been 16.4, which is a score that you are more likely to see in these Games, thanks to F.I.G.’s new, unnecessarily complicated, arduous scoring system.

Over the years, gymnastics has become incredibly difficult; back flips have turned into triple-twisting back flips, and the F.I.G. had been forced to acknowledge that no two perfectly executed routines are the same. A simpler routine can be executed more elegantly and cleanly, but because it lacks difficulty, in a just world, the harder routine, if less perfectly executed would score higher. They’ve dealt with this in recent years by giving each element of a routine difficulty labels a “B” vault is considered easier, and “starts” at a lower score than a “D” level vault. Until recently this resulted in hair-splitting scores like 9.8765 which would mean that a gymnast could conceivably win by .008 of a point, which is patently absurd and invites cries of “the judges are corrupt!” Indeed, American gymnast Shannon Miller lost the gold in the All-Around in 1992 by the closest margin in Olympic history, 12 1/1000th of a point. By then, perfect tens were all but gone, but they were still, a possibility, however distant.

The new scores judge each routine on execution and difficulty; with execution starting at 10 points and artistry making up the rest of the score. It’s closer to the idea that a great routine isn’t just robotic execution—pointed toes and stuck landings—but also embraces the idea that certain gymnasts possess artistry and have a chemistry with the apparatus that transcends sheer technical difficulty. It is what Olga Korbut had, what the greatest gymnast of our time, three-time Olympian Russian Svetlana Khorkina had, and what Mary Lou Retton had in spades. Most Perfect 10s are easy to spot—you know one when you see one.

Bela Karolyi, the coach who produced several Perfect 10 gymnasts, including Nadia and Mary Lou, incidentally, initially thought the new scoring system was crap, too. The outspoken coach told the New York Times:

“It’s crazy, terrible, the stupidest thing that ever happened to the sport of gymnastics. How could they take away this beautiful, this most perfect thing from us, the one thing that separated our sport from the others?“

His former proteges are also holding their noses. Mary Lou Retton told the International Herald Tribune, “I hate the new scoring. The perfect 10, you don’t have to say anything to describe it. The perfect 10, you were perfect.”

Nadia Comaneci is signing a petition protesting the new scoring; but not everyone is upset. Comaneci’s main nemesis during her prime, Russian, Nellie Kim, now a judge, defends the new policy.

The “Perfect 10″ has provided numerous iconic moments in the sports’ history: Mary Lou Retton’s perfect 10 in 1984 at the Los Angeles Games—that memorable sticking of her full-twisting Tsukahara vault (lore had it she had step in some soda on the way to the vault) made her an instant star, and clinched the gold for her. Russian sprite, Oksana Omelianchik came to fame just after Mary Lou, and scored a 10 at the 1985 World Championships for her innovative multiple back-to-back-tumbling pass routines, something that was so inspirational, it propelled nine-time World Champion Sveltana Khorkina to join the sport.

Figure skating judges have long given  two scores based the routine’s Technical and Artistic merits, up to six points. They too, messed with their system after the 2004 Olympics in response to judging scandals, and now have so many stopgaps in place in an attempt to over-correct the corruption, that they even use a “video replay operator,” to judge the routines. The new gymnastics’ scoring system now uses two panels of judges and is so complex you might as well sign up for calculus class.

With gymnastics, there’s no reason the number needed to go higher than 10. The new scoring system is not just less than perfect, it also lacks inspiration, and more importantly aspiration. With the new scoring system, no one will ever put the All Around winner on a cover of a magazine proclaiming, “She’s a 16.8!” No little girl, or boy, will grow up thinking, “Someday, I want to score a 15.7.” The public thrills to the very possibility of seeing magic happen in front of their eyes; and the gymnasts themselves aspire to achieving that, in hopes that they might one day see the number “10″ flash on a screen to roaring, approving crowd. I know, as a gymnast, I certainly did. Even if the gymnasts never achieve it, they still hope for perfection.

And that’s just perfect.

Nadia Comaneci – 1976 Perfect 10 Bars

Mary Lou Retton 1984 Olympics