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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gymnastics Wrap-Up

posted by on August 20 at 12:42 PM

Coming soon: Jen Graves and I liveslog some synchronized swimming. It’s on at midnight or thereabouts Friday night. If you read us, you have no life. But it will be awesome. I had no idea synchro teams, like, did little ’80s dances on the deck of the pool before jumping in. Ha.

I had a special request from a reader asking me to discuss the tiebreaking procedure on the uneven parallel bars, which NBC broadcast Monday night—I wrote a very long, technical post yesterday and then that transformer explosion happened, wiping out all my hard work. (I refuse to compose in another program. The reason is complicated.)

Basically, though, my feeling is this. He Kexin made some errors that were visible even to the untrained eye—a crossover step on the landing, notably. One’s instinct is that these errors should be punished more heavily than those that untrained observers wouldn’t notice. But some of the mistakes Nastia Liukin made—an overshot Pak salto (see this video for an illustration of the move—the first Pak salto is at 0:06-0:08), a fudged pirouette—indicate that she wasn’t up to the extraordinary difficulty of her routine. Overall, I want to say Liukin was better than He, but the fact that their scores were identical doesn’t shock me. (I can’t review NBC’s video of the routines, because they obnoxiously require Macs to run on Intel processors. But maybe you can.)

Now for the tiebreaking procedure. It’s pretty arbitrary, compared to, say, the way the gold and silver were decided for the men’s vault (highest score on either of the two vaults wins). In uneven parallel bars, the tiebreaking procedure requires certain outlying scores to be eliminated until there’s a difference between the two gymnasts. The Washington Post did the best job of breaking it down:


The only confusing thing about this graphic is it says the “highest remaining score [was] thrown out” at the end. Actually, the highest remaining deduction—i.e., the lowest score—was thrown out. At some point, FIG decided to give less credence to harsher judges and more credence to forgiving judges. Those were the rules going in. They’re no stranger than the way delegates were awarded in the Democratic presidential primary, which certainly has a greater impact on the world than who wins gold in a single event in women’s gymnastics in 2008. But the outcome was indeed disappointing.

Which leads me to Shawn Johnson’s gold medal on the balance beam. (Those of you who doubted that the beam had gotten much harder in my previous post should get a load of her routine—it’s all tumbling and one gorgeous full turn in relevé.) However, Ms. Johnson is clearly less flexible than every one of her opponents on the beam, making her leaps look positively puny. It should not have been that way. I get the feeling that she’s so obsessed with fancy tricks that she doesn’t put much work into flexibility training. Still, she performed beautifully, and it’s lovely that both of the talented, steel-nerved top American gymnasts left the Olympics with a gold medal. I still like Liukin better.

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Seems like the number of blatant mistakes I saw in gymnastics this year were way way up, and that doesn't count the more subtle stuff you mentioned that an untrained person like me can't even see. Seems like the majority made very awkward blunders (not counting dismounts).

Do you think the levels of difficulty are too high?

Posted by cracked | August 20, 2008 12:56 PM

@1: I do. The new code of points heavily favors difficulty over execution, and I think that's bad for gymnasts as well as being not particularly fun to watch for fans of gymnastics. Liukin and Johnson make most of the stuff they do look easy, but for kids who are, shall we say, less superhuman, those skills come at a great psychological cost.

Posted by annie | August 20, 2008 1:00 PM

Since gymnastics is pretty much over, I just wanted to say that I've been enjoying these posts, Annie. It's really interesting to see the sport from the perspective of someone who's actually been involved with it.

Posted by Abby | August 20, 2008 1:41 PM

Agree w/1 & 2. It's confusing to the casual observer to watch Cheng Fei fall down on her vault and wobble all over the beam and still medal on both.

Posted by David | August 20, 2008 1:54 PM

And agree w/3 too, for that matter! Thanks for the posts, Annie!

Posted by David | August 20, 2008 1:56 PM

Annie, have enjoyed the posts. Gymnastics are my fave Olympic event. Liukin's performance on the beam last night was poetry! Regarding the uneven parallel bars, I disagree with the results, but kudos for Liukin to graciously accepting the silver. She's a class act.

And yes, I would love to see the level of difficulty at a more manageable level so that the gymnasts can focus on execution.

Posted by rb | August 20, 2008 3:02 PM

Beat these freak shows back to the circus, how about some indoor women's volleyball.

Posted by Dougsf | August 20, 2008 3:04 PM

Agreed-- thanks for the posts Annie. I also like Liukin better-- she just seems more graceful, especially on the balance beam. She looked like she wasn't even trying. Maybe its those crazy long legs. Awesomeness.

Posted by SDizzle | August 20, 2008 3:33 PM

Annie, thanks for this well layed out breakdown on that tiebreak!! I loved your gymnastics posts. I hope they re-work the point system before London 2012.

Posted by arduous | August 20, 2008 5:09 PM

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