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Sunday, August 29, 2004

Good as Gold 


I've missed a lot of the Olympics, but I've been thinking about the controversy about Paul Hamm. I'm especially interested because he's from my home town (Waukesha, Wisconsin), the nephew of a good high school friend of mine. So all the news about him catches my eye.

Paul Hamm was awarded the gold medal for the all-around competition in gymnastics. The all-around involves combining the gymnast's scores on all the events, and so it is generally taken to be a contest for the best gymnast in the world. Two days after the completion of this event, the South Korean team contested the scoring, and it was established that there was a judging error. If not for that error the South Korean gymnast would have gotten the gold medal, not Paul Hamm.

I saw some intitial reaction in the press suggesting Hamm should do the right thing and give up the medal. This sounded sensible to me. We all know the scores were incredibly close, there is a margin of error, he is just as good a gymnast as the South Korean. And by doing this he and we can all live with the knowledge that the medal is in the hands of its rightful owner. That sounded like the high road. I now think this is a mistake.

Recently, the president of the FIG, the leading international gymnastics federation, has sent a letter asking Hamm to give up his medal voluntarily. The FIG seems to be responsible for hiring, and lately firing, the judges. They are not the Olympic authorities, though. It is pretty unclear to me who has authority over the decision about the gold medal. The U.S. Olympic Committee angrily reacted to the FIG's letter to Hamm. And the International Olympic Committee was not consulted by the FIG. Complicated. What interests me is not who has the authority to order him to give it up. No one has tried that yet. What interests me is the suggestion that he should give it up voluntarily.

It is a mistake to suggest that Paul Hamm should give up his medal for several reasons. The most important one is that the athletes do not, and should not, have the power to give up a medal. If the Olympic officials determine that Hamm has the gold medal, then he has it. He might not be holding the actual medal in his hands. He might give it to his father (who was a terrific diver at Waukesha's South High by the way), or to his girlfriend, or to a South Korean gymnast he feels bad for. But this doesn't change who won. The winner is the one the judges say is the winner after legitimate avenues for dispute are exhausted. Judges make errors of various kinds, of course, as they do in all sports. Umpires sometimes call a strike when the pitch was simply not in the strike zone. But that doesn't mean the batter didn't strike out. If the umpire says it is a strike, that is final. Should the pitcher have the power to override the umpire, and confess that it was not a strike? The players are not the umpires.

The South Korean team lodged its objection two days later. The rules only allow such protests to be lodged during the competition. So too late. End of story. There is no alternative to this basic model. Disputes can't be allowed without any time limit. A decision must be made so that life can move on. If someone thinks the deadline for objections is too short, then they should try to get it changed. In the meantime, them's the rules.

There are analogies to this point in politics. Consider the presidential election pitting Bush v. Gore. We now know that an error was made. The actual popular vote in Florida should have given that state to Gore. But since it was scored in Bush's column, Bush won the election. Now you will say, he didn't win. He was put in office erroneously. But you would be wrong. Bush is the legally legitimate president, an office which is held by the... umm... winner. Bush did not win the popular vote in the country or in Florida, but those are both different questions from whether he won the presidency. It is much like the case where the referee says "strike" but the pitch was not really in the strike zone. The proper response to that is, tough luck. Let's make sure things are done better next time. In the meantime, yer out.

Here's another analogy in politics, one close to my heart. Suppose congress sets your income tax rate at 25% of your gross income. Now suppose, just bear with me, that this is very unfair. Your income is only $12,000 per year, and 25% is really inappropriate given that so many millionaires are paying hardly anything. The details don't matter, but suppose it is unjust. Yes, but... it is still the amount that you owe the government. At least supposing the law, unjust though it may be, was passed without lies or bribery (again, bear with me and just imagine it) the fact that a just law would only have levied a 15% tax on you is neither here nor there. Better luck next time. Or maybe the speed limit on your street should really be 45, not 25. Tough luck, it's 25. A law does not need to be just or correct in order to be a law that the state has every right and obligation to enforce, and a law that citizens have a duty to obey. I say this point is close to my heart since it is a point that I have pressed in a number of contexts in political philosophy. It is really much like the case for Paul Hamm's counting as the victor. The judges made an error, just as legislators do. The result is nevertheless the one that everyone, including Hamm himself, must live with. He is the legitimate winner, the beneficiary, perhaps, of one of the countless errors than go into judging and scoring athletic competitions, and making laws. Join the club.

I shouldn't even bring up this next point, since it will seem as though what I have said so far is not enough without this extra bit. I think it is. But there is also this extra bit: the South Korean was also mis-scored. The TV coverage a few days later demonstrated, a few days later, that the judges neglected to dock him .2 for having four "hold" moves instead of the maximum three that are allowed. That would have knocked him out of the medals. Now, if you haven't been listening you might think that he is not the legitimate holder of his medal. My point is that he is. He is the beneficiary of an error, just as Paul Hamm is. And also George W. Bush. But even if the South Korean had not been mis-scored, Hamm now deserves to keep his medal. The reason is that it is his according to the rules, and the rules are perfectly reasonable. Congratulations Paul. (Go Blackshirts!)

There's been lots of discussion of whether gymnastics is simply too hard to score in a fair and reliable way. It is too subjective, many are saying. There is some misunderstanding of all this. It is not as if the judges look at a gymnasts routine and score it according to how cool it was. A Russian on horizontal bar recently brought the house down with a really cool routine, but one that scored lower than a less cool routine, and so he lost. The house nearly came down from the boos and hisses directed at the judges. Competition had to be halted because of the disruption. And, the commentators say, this shows that the scoring is too subjective. Hmmm. We know it is subjective because it conflicted with the opinion of the crowd of people in the audience, most of whom probably don't have the first idea about how gymnastics routines are scored according to the rules? I'm not convinced.

I think maybe the crowd was wowed by a routine that included a bunch of cool things that just don't count for more according to the rules. It is like a basketball team who plays with great flourish, spinning in the air on the way to their dunks, etc. The crowd goes crazy. Then they notice the scoreboard. The referees have decided that this beautiful team loses! And why? Because there's some rule about the total number of points. As if that's all that matters. Well, if you don't like the rules try to get them changed. In the meantime, you lose. The crowd is not the judge.

Gymnastics scoring is largely objective, but there is an explicitly subjective element to the score. The Hamm case is one in which an error was made according to the objective elements of the score. The South Korean's routine was mistakenly thought not to have the full level of difficulty. That was a mistake. It did. Nothing subjective about it. So the Hamm case should not be lumped with the Russian case to condemn gymnastics as a subjectively judged sport. Perhaps the subjective element in gymnastics should be removed. Perhaps the cap score of 10.0 should be relaxed, allowing bonus points for special accomplishments such as more release moves (where one is completely out of contact with the apparatus) than the other guy. I think the problem with gymnastics scoring is not mainly that it has a subjective component, but that the scores are all jammed into the tiny corner just below 10.0. There's room for improvement in the scoring, but it is an insult to the athletes to suggest theirs is just an aesthetic display, judged for its beauty or for it's coolness factor.

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