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Judge Not -- Unless You've Been a Judge

August 29, 2004|Judi Ketteler | Special to The Times

In the last two weeks, gymnastics has been called many things, including "a fraud" and "a competition without rules" by an commentator who argued that the sport should be banished from the Olympics.

I'm a gymnastics judge who spends just about every Saturday between October and March in a gym somewhere, so you can see why this would make me angry.

I know, however, that it's frustration that prompts such ridiculous statements. Unlike in basketball, baseball or swimming, there is no three-point line, no home base, no clock by which to measure gymnasts.

There are only the judges, watching every movement, and in less than a second, deciding what skill was performed, what value to give it, whether it was connected to another skill and how well it was done. Then it's on to the next skill.

That's really not the problem, however, because we can do it. After years of studying and practicing, our eyes, brains and hands are trained for it, and though it's not always perfect, it's a pretty good system.

The problem is that TV networks are looking for drama at every turn, and they jump at any chance to cast heroes and villains, because it makes for good TV.

The Americans are the heroes.

But with the fall of communism, the former Soviet and Eastern-bloc countries can't really be the villains anymore. Instead, they are cast as sympathetic characters in a tale about the evils of communism and dictatorship, as the same grainy footage of run-down training centers is shown over and over again.

So there are new villains: the judges.

I agree that there definitely were some judging mistakes made at these Olympics, and that's a shame. What people watching from home don't understand, however, is that there are systems to challenge scores and start values. It's not just a free-for-all out there.

In fact, when I spoke with the women's gymnastics judge on the American delegation for Athens, she said there was a program that monitored a judge's scoring by analyzing how she was ranking the gymnasts over several days of competition.

If I were judging a routine and I posted a start value that the coach didn't agree with, that coach would be at the referee's table within seconds. Nothing gets by the coaches. They fight for every tenth of a point for their gymnasts, and rightly so.

I invite those critics, those who say that gymnastics has no rules and that you can't possibly be both subjective and objective at the same time, to come sit at my judging table.

Bring your fastest pencil, because routines happen quickly. Thirty seconds on bars. No longer than 90 seconds on floor. And vault? Blink, and it's over.

In those seconds, you have to write down, in shorthand, every skill performed, the value you gave it and how much you deducted -- and if you have a hand like a ninja's, what specific thing you deducted for.

Judging is making split-second decisions. Did she make that turn all the way around? Did that leap hit 180 degrees? Were those elements connected?

If you say yes, you may come up with 0.5 in bonus. Your head judge may not have connected the series, and may have only 0.3 in bonus. Your start values don't agree.

And that's normal. That's why meet directors pay for two, or even four, opinions. But they aren't arbitrary opinions. They are the results of watching hundreds, thousands of routines and having a clear picture in mind of the ideal. From there, it's about ranking the gymnasts. We watch. We judge. We can't look back. You can only judge what you see, no matter how loudly a crowd boos, or how unfair it seems to a Russian drama-queen gymnast who says there is a conspiracy against her.

In real life, as opposed to the media-hyped world of the Olympics, there are no TV cameras. No heroes, villains or imagined conspiracies. Just excited kids, and judges doing their best. If everybody is lucky, they get some pretty ribbons at the end of the day, and you get a check for $50.

Judges judge because we love it, and though I'm not so naive as to believe that politics doesn't creep into the sport at those higher levels, every judge is there out of love for the sport. There is no other reason to be there.

You can say it's an imperfect system and I really can't argue with you. But in the three or four minutes it took you to read this, you could have judged five uneven bar routines, each with complex twisting, flipping and grip changes. You do know your different grips, don't you?

Do you think you got it right?

Not to worry, there are plenty of people to tell you if you didn't.

Freelance writer Judi Ketteler lives in Cincinnati. A former gymnast and current Level 10 judge, she judges club, YMCA, AAU and high school gymnastics.

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