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Friday, August 20, 2004

The Horrors of Judged Sports

I'll concede that gymnasts, boxers and ice skaters are athletes, but I'll also grudgingly admit that professional wrestlers are good athletes too. In all cases, you have to be in great shape and highly skilled to do the type of tumbling, brawling, skating and tumbling that these athletes do.

But that's about all I'll concede with respect to the first three, which are Olympic sports. It's awful when you have subjectivity involved, as is the case involving Paul Hamm and the Korean gymnast whose fates are intertwined with an appeal by the Korean delegation regarding whether or not Hamm should have won the all-around gold medal in the first place. I don't know who is right or wrong in this whole debate, and I don't much care. Because there is room for subjectivity and politics, these so-called sports should be banished to the hard-to-receive networks and shown at 2 a.m. Haven't we learned anything from past controversies to help try to create a system that can avoid this awful sort of thing? That's why I for one could care less who wins a judged sport. Does the winner win because he's the best, because he has put up such a body of work that he gets an edge (i.e., a lifetime achievement bonus), because his federation is in tighter with the judges, because a judge or two doesn't like his opponent or his opponent's coach? When stuff like this happens, it makes you wonder (and don't necessarily blame this one on the Koreans, either, because Hamm fell and still won the gold).

It's bad in gymnastics, as it was in the Winter Olympics with figure skating, and it's also plum awful with Olympic boxing. Stephen A. Smith (yes, he of ESPN fame) wrote a very good column about Olympic boxing and what a joke it has become. Click here for a link to today's Philadelphia Inquirer and read all about it.

Naturally, there are judges everywhere, even in sports where the judges 9.3's or 8.5's don't rule the day. But in the other sports, they are there to ensure that the rules are followed, not to pick the winners. Witness Adam Nelson, the U.S. shotputter, yelling "no" to the officials who put up the foul flag on his last attempt to win the gold in the shotput. The put itself looked like it would have given Nelson the gold medal, but the replay clearly showed that the judges were right -- Nelson's foot fell outside the circle. After Nelson's protests, which were borne more out of disbelief than anger, he handled the entire situation in a gracious manner. Witness, also, Aaron Piersol, the U.S. swimmer, who created controversy when he alleged that breastroker Brendan Hansen's archrival used an illegal kick to beat Hansen. Hansen offered no excuses, and his archrival's medal stood. Yesterday, though, the officials initially disqualified Piersol from a gold in his backstroke even (200 meters, I think) because of an alleged illegal turn. What motivated the DQ? Was it because Piersol had dissed the judges or because a judge thought that Piersol stayed on his stomach for too long during the turn? It didn't matter; the DQ was overturned, and Piersol got his gold. The judges were there to enforce the rules; nothing more.

I can take judges like the ones who called numerous fouls on Nelson (who had major trouble staying inside his circle) and even Piersol (where the judge might have made an honest mistake, and the tribunal overturned it), but I cannot take the sports where the judges control everything.

Perhaps these sports belong in the Olympics, perhaps they don't, but if the Olympics are supposed to be totally apolitical (unless you're part of the Iranian delegation), why are sports whose politics, while not created on country lines but within the realm of the sport itself, are so pronounced, in the Olympics in the first place? I honestly don't get it.

The best sports to watch for my money are the ones that the players can win on the mat, on the track, in the pool, on the floor -- without the officials playing any role other than to make sure that players are following the rules.


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