When Olympic athletes succeed but judges fail
Aly Raisman celebrates with her coach after an appeal of her balance beam score earned her a bronze medal.
August 8th, 2012
01:05 PM ET

When Olympic athletes succeed but judges fail

When U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman completed her routine on the balance beam during the individual finals Tuesday, she hugged her coach and stared at the scoreboard, waiting to see whether she had done enough to medal.

When the score finally flashed, a nervous Raisman became disappointed.

"Oh, no!" her coach, Mihai Brestyan, proclaimed as he spotted the eerily familiar results.

She had landed in fourth place – again – and just shy of the medal stand for the second time in the Olympics.

What happened next would again thrust the judges, athletes and coaches into a heated debate over Olympic scoring.

As Raisman tried to hold back her disappointment, shouts came from the crowd. U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, her husband, Bela (who is no longer associated with Team USA but is a constant fixture), and vice president of USA women's gymnastics Kathy Kelly shouted and motioned for Brestyan to file a protest.

They believed that the judges hadn't accurately tabulated her difficulty score, specifically the connections between a few of her elements on the beam. Brestyan raced around the gym to get a form to fill out in the allotted time. Meanwhile, Raisman congratulated Catalina Ponor of Romania, who was in position for bronze.

Raisman and Team USA anxiously stared at the scoreboard as judges from the International Gymnastics Federation reviewed video of her routine.

"It might be a tie," Raisman said: a repeat of the all-around finals. Raisman had tied Russia's Aliya Mustafina, which in the all-around means the lowest score was dropped. Raisman, long seen as the rock of the team, had narrowly missed an individual medal because of the tiebreaker rule. She was worried it would happen again.

And Raisman was right, it was a tie. But her coach quickly reminded her she would end up on the podium because the execution scores alone, not the difficulty, were judged in the tiebreaker.

The scoreboard flashed the official result. The tiebreaker went in Raisman's favor this time, and she received a bronze medal.

It was perhaps one of the longest moments of Raisman's career. But it was not the first time this chaotic scene had played out in the Olympics - or questions about the accuracy of judging had come up.

For years, debate has stirred about how accurately sports can be judged, especially in the Olympics. Many have argued that everything is subjective. And in a sport that comes down to hundredths of a point, that can be everything. As Raisman knows, it can also be the difference between being an Olympic medalist and missing out entirely.

That is part of the reason the inquiry system Raisman's coach used was instituted.

"The inquiry was introduced along with FIG's new scoring system following the 2004 Olympics, where judging disasters marred the men's all-around and high bar finals. (The inquiry replaced an appeals process, which had a far lower rate of overturning scores at the 2004 Olympics, at least)," Nick Zaccardi wrote in a Sports Illustrated column explaining the system, using the acronym for the International Gymnastics Federation. "The FIG did away with the perfect 10 and redid its 'code of points' system with the more complicated two-pronged approach. The benefits of the change included eliminating potential bias in judging, the FIG said in 2005. Video review was also introduced."

Team USA's use of the inquiry in Raisman's case was the third in gymnastics during this Olympics alone.

Japan made a similar request over Kohei Uchimura's score on the pommel horse during the men's team finals.

Uchimura, one of the best men's gymnasts and a hero in his home country, was seen as a lock to propel Japan to a medal. But after his score was shown on the screen, it seemed Japan would be left off the podium. The scores placed China with the gold, Great Britain with the silver and Ukraine with the bronze. Japan, like Raisman, sat in fourth.

NBC: Watch the video

As commentators on NBC wondered whether "the greatest gymnast of our time dropped the ball," the camera quickly panned to the judges' table, where a Japanese coach was seen with money in his hand, filling out an inquiry form. FIG requires a payment of $300 to file an appeal. If the score is overturned, the money is returned.

Japan claimed that Uchimura had also been overlooked in the scoring: specifically, that he did connect a handstand before his dismount.

Japan challenged the score given to gymnast Kohei Uchimura on the pommel horse during the men's team final.

An announcement came in Japan's favor. It was one that greatly altered the standings. Ukraine was left without a medal, and the host nation was now taking home the bronze, something the home crowd was clearly displeased about.

During the men’s all-around competition, Germany's Fabian Hambuchen's pommel horse score was also protested, but the committee rejected the appeal.

The nature of scoring in gymnastics, similar to figure skating, has been debated as largely subjective despite attempts to correct concerns through recent FIG changes.

That's something Romania's Ponor, who lost out on a medal after Raisman's challenge, and her coach now know all too well. Ponor's face went from excitement to disappointment in the course of a few minutes. Coach Yuliy Kuksenkov who said after the ruling that "life is life," perhaps best capturing many people's thoughts regarding the routine disagreements about scoring.

"In athletics, 100 meters is just 100 meters," Sports Illustrated quoted him as saying. "Sometimes in gymnastics, it's 95 meters or 105 meters."

It's not all about gymnastics, though.

A scoring controversy in fencing last week left South Korea's Shin A-Lam in tears - and left her refusing to leave the piste. She appealed to judges over a delayed and stuck clock that had resulted in extra points being awarded to Britta Heidemann of Germany. Had she left the piste during the appeal, it would have signaled she agreed with the judges.

YouTube: A Lego re-enactment with the play-by-play, created by The Guardian

The South Korean was photographed sitting in the same spot for more than 70 minutes as she awaited the appeal and then refused to leave after it was handed down. She was finally escorted off the stage, sobbing.

South Korea's Shin A-Lam was finally escorted off in tears.

"I did everything I could," Shin told Reuters after the match. "They said 'your fencer has to continue the match,' so I had to accept the decision."

Accepting the decision may be part of it, but so is being prepared and willing to fight for the scores you believe are deserved.

U.S. gymnast Jordyn Wieber's coach told Sports Illustrated that he kept a filled-out inquiry form with him, just in case.

But as Raisman, Brestyan, Ponor, Uchimura, Shin and others know: It's an imperfect two-sided coin. You have to know when to make the call and be able to do it quickly in gymnastics, and sometimes you just fall on the wrong side of the ruling.

"I agree with the system," Brestyan said, according to Sports Illustrated. "The system sometimes helps. Sometimes not."

soundoff (575 Responses)
  1. Clive

    Concernint the protest that gave Ally of the US the Bronze Medal. If it was so obvious an infraction that the committee could make a ruling in 10 seconds How come the Judges could not see that in the first place.
    Seems like the Judges were trying to pull a fast one. Even in the NFL it takes forever for the Refs to reverse a call . But in the Olympics it takes 10 Seconds WOW. What if Bella was not so observient and did not alert the Coach to file a protest?
    Ally would have been SOL

    August 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • susansbaker

      I know Bela is a great coach and a patriot too, but he's also a big crying baby. Every time the US team lost he'd whine in front of the tv complaining about the judges and the sytems, or the US team was underscored.The US offered him a job and green card, so in return he needs to kiss the US's a****

      August 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • earlbowden

      10 seconds? Were you watching, or did you just make up this time? The process took closer to 10 minutes.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  2. James

    Although it is an awful situation how about the women's US vs Canada soccer game. Team Canada was robbed by the ref in that game.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • jonp

      actually canada robbed themselves. they were warned by the referee about delaying the game yet the canadians decided to ignore those warnings. the referee felt she had no choice but to penalize them for challenging her authority, the rules of the game, and for trying to gain an unfair advantage. look up the fifa rules in soccer and you will see that the free kick was the appropriate penalty.
      if canada hadn't engaged in such conduct, they probably would have won the game. it was a self-inflicted injury.

      August 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ian

      Canada has said repeatedly and the film bears withness, there were no warnings, and that is the whole problem. Perhaps the 'warning' you speak of was the American female Wombach counting (on her fingers, poor thing) the time the goalie held the ball, and counting loudly and directly to the ref – IMHO she should have been carded for objectionable conduct, she's not the referee and has no business trying to influence her . . . the ref's a big girl and can make her own questionable decisions. Dollars to donuts there's a different ref for both the medal games.

      August 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caitlin

      The ref warned Canada's goalie three times before she made the call on wasting time and the hand ball hit two different Canadian hands on two different players. Completely fair.

      August 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • jamdfh

      Actually, an indirect kick in inside the box is rare, then using your hands to prevent a proper defelction is cheating. But even more egregious is the Canadian player stomping on the head of a USA player! Canada should have been playing with 10 players.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  3. d

    How many instant replays do we have in the NFL and college football? Ya, I don't that it's all that bad with the what, 4 appeals in judging? I would love to watch a football game with only 4 replays about a call.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. sadtosay

    It is hard to watch some of the events like gymnastics because it is so subjective. Aside from the scoring which is confunded with possibility for human error, how can you say one routine is one point of difficulty harder than another?

    August 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • David

      That's a valid question, and the answer is that every move is given a specific number of points, and everyone knows exactly which move would give you how many points. The gymnasts construct their routines accordingly, so they know ahead of the time the difficulty level of the routine. Of course, the execution of those routines is still judged subjectively, but it at least eliminates some of the subjectivity from the overall score.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Kelley

    The Olympics are becoming a joke. You have proffessional athletes but amatuer refs and judges and no video replays. A ref blows a call (Canada vs USA Women's Soccor) and the players complain after the match and what happens? The players get investigated for their comments. You have Chinese gymnasts falling of the beam during their dismount and when they get a bad score they challenge and say it was part of the routine and then they get a better score and win a medal. The Olympics and FIFA have become a world class Joke.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anderson

      As has been stated over and over again, there was no "blown call". It was a usually uncalled call, but it was still the right call. These rare calls happen all the time in sports – and sometimes they happen in high profile games. Stop slapping the side of your face in shock.

      August 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  6. jdoe

    How can a clock get "stuck" anymore? Was it a mechanical clock? We're not in the 19th century anymore. And even if it was really stuck. A simple replay would show exactly when time ran out. It should never have been a judgment call.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • SteveC

      In fencing if the full second hasn't passed before they halt then the full second is refunded.

      What happened is that the German fencer lunging within the second (they were reset closer than they should have been to each other) over and over, which let the second get refunded.

      The judge messed up in one of the 4 "1 second points" and refunded the second because the time keeper messed up on starting the clock.

      So what ended up happening is that the German fencer was able to make a lunge within 1 second 4 times in a row until she got the point.
      Interestingly, it's not against the rules to do this (though the ruling body for fencing will probably change the way timers work in the sport soon.)

      August 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BC-Bill

    With all the controversies, doping, cheating, judge fails, protests, game rigging... I ask one question...why do we still have the Olympics at all? It's creating friction between countries rather than uniting them in the name of fair sport. I think the Olympics is becoming an obsolete model that can be compared to beauty contests such as Miss Universe. If there are so many variables that can change the outcome, I say end it, becuase it's becoming evident with the problematic frequency each Olympics, that as an audience, many of us have lost all belief in what they call "Fair Sport"..

    August 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • jdoe

      The Olympics can be saved, if it sticks to only events where no judgment is needed, or at least minimally. Events such as running or swimming simply rely on the clock, and others like javelin or weightlifting are based on objective measurements. There are plenty of sports that use objective scoring.

      August 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Taliones

    America didn't win gold so the winner either cheated or the judges are idiots. Americans are the biggest sore losers ever.

    Get over it, you're not the best in the world anymore.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fearless Freep

      32 gold medals (as of yesterday)
      says you are wrong.

      Hate Americans much ?

      August 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      Oh, but the US is still the best in the world.......at everything.

      You're just jealous.

      Besides, this story wasn't about winning gold.........it was about bronze.

      August 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • ltcoljpm

      Time to take your medication!

      August 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Taliones

      Fearless Freep

      China has 35 Gold medals what's your point? It still doesn't change the fact that Americans are the biggest sore losers and have absolutely terrible sportsmanship.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Manny

    A GB boxer was warned 3 times for holding the head of a Canadian boxer down which should be an automatic point deduction and that decided the outcome of the fight. An appeal garnered the comment "The Canadian went in with his head down.", blaming the loss and the mistake on the Canadian. Unbelievable.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Ryan

    I have no judgements in this because if I were in their shoes and worked as hard as they have to get to where they are, I would be questioning everything that human judges were judging.
    These athelets doing is better than my attempting, kudos to them.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Q

    The Ponor, the Romanian gymnast, was robbed twice yesterday with the large help of the judges. Perfect floor routine earned her a silver while the score inquire the american coach put in robbed her of the bronze medal...

    August 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • As Far As Siam

      They should have both gotten medals.
      Dont blame the Americans, blame the judges.

      August 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • susansbaker

      100% agreed.

      August 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Alice

    They should all get metals because we teach our kids these days that everyone wins a trophy.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Clyde

    For those of you old enough to have witnessed Olympics judging over the past 50 years, you will have to admit that judging is much less subjective than it was back in the heyday of the Cold War. Judging of gymnastics and Ice Skating use to be a travesty, and you could predict a judges score based on which country the judge and contestants were from. Now very few of the scores lead me to suspect bias by the judges. It will never be perfect, but it pretty darn good.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Doug

    Americans should be the last to complain, they always seem to get the breaks and the benefits of refs and protests. Typical case, the American boxer wins his protest and the Canadian Clayton who clearly won his fight, but was denied in his protest despite a clear warning points violation by the ref. The ref in the Canada/US soccer didn't surprise me either, nice of the American Wambolt to help the ref count past 6.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. refs should not 'PLAY'

    Two great womans Soccer teams played a fabulous game ( America, and Canada) ....and if left to play without the blatant bias and outrageous calls of one of the refs, who knows what the outcome would have been for these talented ladies. Unheard of calls, never used calls, ( called rediculous by many Countries not just Canada), lost them a chance at the Gold. The teams should have been let play, and not have had the outcome swayed by a single ref. The Canadian womans team was actually threatened by FIFA when their coach, and many others questioned the actions of the ref. LET THE ATLETES DECIDE THE OUTCOME! That's what they are there for. Congrats to all the ladies for having such talent and class.

    August 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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