We've been made fools of. Those of us who are proud to be fans of gymnastics and figure skating and diving, the sports of judges and politics as much as back flips and triple lutzes, must come to grips with this truth.
We are enablers.
We accept that cheating happens, that the better tumbler, twirler, jumper doesn't always win. We debate the horror of the 9.95 score from the Ukraine judge off that perfect vault. We'll nod and say, "Yes, of course, we believe that happened," when the story of the Russian Mafia and the figure skating judges comes trickling out.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 27, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 148 words Type of Material: Correction
Gymnastics--Former U.S. Olympic gymnast Bart Conner's last name was misspelled in a Sports story Thursday.
And then, just as the baseball fans who file back after the millionaire players strike or billionaire owners lock the players out, we buy more tickets, we turn on the TV, we watch the next contest even if we are sure the results will somehow be manipulated.
Former Olympic coach Bela Karolyi sits in an Anaheim hotel suite and says with conviction that judging in his sport is as shady and manipulated as that of figure skating.
"Is just as bad," he says, "and maybe worse."
Karolyi gulps coffee and talks passionately--with his voice, his mustache, his eyes and his hands--about gymnastics, the sport he loves and still dominates. He tells stories of how Nadia Comaneci was hoodwinked out of her rightful all-around gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Games. Of the North Korean gymnast at the 1991 World Championships who had empty spaces in her gums because her baby teeth had recently fallen out even though no competitor was supposed to be younger than 15. "I ask the officials, 'Who is changing her diapers?' " Karolyi says.
What are we, the fans of these sports, doing when we stand up and cheer perfection from Michelle Kwan or Mary Lou Retton if we don't finally quit giving our support to the men and women who rule the results?
Are we being chumps?
Karolyi rolls his eyes and throws up his hands as he explains how the judges come to practice sessions and within minutes are passing notes and whispering behind their hands. "It makes my stomach turn over," Karolyi says. "Who knows what is plotting?"
We must be idiots, those of us who are left in awe when Svetlana Khorkina whirls around the uneven bars, flying to the roof and back down. What is the point if the Italian judge has decided to support the Ukrainian competitor on the uneven bars so the Italian vaulter can get the Ukrainian support?
"I don't think it's that bad," Bart Connor says.
Connor, a former U.S. Olympian, is married to Comaneci. Yes, Connor says, it is a problem that many judges are financed by their national federations and feel as much a part of the national team as the athlete. Trainer tapes the gymnasts' ankles. Check. Gymnast performs the prescribed vault. Check. Russian judge gives Russian gymnast top score. Check.
"But gymnastics is trying," Connor says. Connor says there are some experts who think gymnastics is trying too hard. The sport now has a code of points. Every move and trick has an established scoring value. Every bobble has an established deduction.
"It is almost stifling the creativity," Connor says. "The gymnast becomes afraid to try a new trick or invent a new move because you don't know how it will be scored, so it's better to be safe. Now so many of the routines look alike."
A year from now the world gymnastics championships will come to the Arrowhead Pond.
Young women with tiny bodies and big hearts, who have given their teen-aged years to training themselves to tumble without a stumble, will captivate and awe their fans.
Then judges will hold up score cards. There might be a 9.75 instead of a 9.85 or maybe a 9.95 when nearly everyone else saw a perfect 10. There will be booing. There might very well be a coach running to the table, pounding his fist, demanding a recount.
"It could happen," Karolyi says. "It will happen. That cat is out of the bag."
The awarding of dual gold pairs figure skating medals in Salt Lake City was not the sensible conclusion to a terrible conundrum but a gutless inability to accept a result, right or wrong.
"Now every coach can think of a reason to complain," Karolyi says, seeming, in his mind, to already be plotting strategy. "And why not?"
We sports fans want to trust. We want to trust the judges, the coaches, the athletes. We want to trust the times, the scores, the integrity of it all. We want to believe that what we see is true and honest.
And if, too often, it is not, then that is our fault too. For going along.
Diane Pucin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.