gymnastics rules encourage difficult skills

Most everyone agrees. The biggest problem with the “new” Code of Points used in Beijing is that athletes with high difficulty were rewarded more than athletes with superb form, line and technique.

But why did this happen?

Former American Champion Todd Thornton was blogging the Olympics for Inside Gymnastics. Like many others, he was very disappointed that the judges “boxed” the B-scores for execution.

Nastia-Kexin.jpgTodd takes a very strong position on the Nastia vs He Kexin tie break in the Bars Final:

I was sitting a mere 30 feet away from the uneven bars, with a perfect side angle view during finals. In my opinion, Nas was underscored by two to three-tenths. …

He Kexin, the eventual gold medalist, on the other hand, had more deductions throughout her routine than Liukin, in my opinion. She missed several handstands, caught a few releases close, and on one transition was caught in a near dead hang. Oh, and she took a step forward and to the side on the dismount. In my opinion, Kexin was over scored by two-tenths. With a difference of about five-tenths in the routines, I thought there was no way the judges would keep Nas from taking home her second Olympic Gold. But they did, along with a tie-break system that just doesn’t make sense.

Both routines have the same difficulty (7.7) and on this day, the judges evaluated the execution equally, for a tie score of 16.725. But a tie-break rule that is ridiculously complicated awarded gold to Kexin and silver to Liukin. …

Some B-panel judges had Nastia ahead. Some had He Kexin ahead.

But the B-scores were so close that it could have gone either way.

The point is, somehow FIG must find a way to get the judges to make a greater range of B-scores between routines of conspicuously different quality. Right now judges are afraid of being too far “out of range” with the rest of the panel.

Coach Sommer of GymnasticBodies.com and others have made this same point:

Just look at the results from the (Olympic) pommel horse finals (or any finals or throughout the competition, actually). In pommel horse finals, the gymnasts who placed from second to sixth were all within three-tenths of each other in execution (ranging from 9.075 to 9.325). Watch the routines back and you’ll see a completely different quality to those routines – a lot more variance than three tenths. Look at the overall quality of Hiroyuki Tomita’s routine – his bodyline, his toe point, his overall manner of execution and compare it even with Louis Smith (who took home the bronze) and who had multiple form breaks, flexed feet and breaks in bodyline and rhythm. It just doesn’t make sense.

Thornton’s Take: The Scoring Controversy

Louis-Smith.jpg
Yahoo Sports

Bruno Grandi says he will insist the Technical committees make those changes to the rules. He called the scoring on the medal for Cheng Fei who fell on Vault in the Final “absurd”.

Will FIG “fix” the Code?

I’ll believe it when I see it.

15 comments ↓

#1 Isis on 09.01.08 at 12:46 am

I only watched the UB EF once, so I feel a little bit hesitant to judge about that particular final; but in general, I MUCH prefer Kexin’s routine to Nastia’s. Won’t Kexin’s start value on UB be several tenths higher than Nastia’s when the 2009 Code comes into effect? It certainly should! Plus, I just don’t get how people can say that Nastia has such great execution on bars. With all those leg separations and that hopelessly cowboyed dismount… Ugh. I like Kexin’s routine way more.

As for Cheng Fei’s bronze… I wasn’t under the impression that Grandi called the judging absurd; I thought he meant that the Code that allowed Cheng to score higher than A-Sac in spite of Cheng’s fall was absurd. Further, the article says:

“While routines for every other event have 10 elements, vault is a single element, giving judges on the B panel — the panel that evaluates execution — less room to take deductions. Grandi wanted to see the difficulty mark halved or the execution deductions doubled to more accurately reflect errors.”

I don’t think it would make sense to halve the difficulty mark; that would put strong vaulters at a disadvantage in the AA. But doubling the execution deductions makes a lot of sense to me. As it is, barring a fall, an Amanar, even an extremely sloppy one, will ALWAYS score higher than a DTY, no matter how well executed. It just doesn’t make sense. They should increase those execution deductions so that an athlete doesn’t bother squeezing an extra half twist unless she can do it with decent form and landing.

#2 pommy on 09.01.08 at 2:12 am

I don’t understand how Nastia has got so much recognition on bars when she keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. Her leg separations are jarring compared to Yang Yilin’s legs always glued together and her cowboyed dismounts are absolutely hideous.

IMO, it’s a little far fetched to compare the difficulty between He Kexin’s and Nastia’s routines. But according to the COP, they’re the same A score? Nonsense!

If we’re going to compare scores for the UB EF, then the biggest controversy, yet unspoken of, is Yang Yilin’s score! WTH?! If Yang was American, how much you want to bet Tim and Elfie would be having a heart attack over how underscored she was? Or how much more uproar there would be of the “biases” the judges have towards the Chinese by underscoring the Americans?

#3 Giulyx14 on 09.01.08 at 6:01 am

I agree!!!

#4 coach Rick on 09.01.08 at 8:32 am

Certainly the case for Yang Yilin has been made. And eloquently by the foremost commentator on the WWW, Andrew Thornton:

http://gymnasticscoaching.com/?p=5893

All 3 routines are great.

#5 coach Rick on 09.01.08 at 8:34 am

Ah, I think you are right Isis.

And the vault start values are absurd. Great vaults that fall are scoring too high.

#6 Troy on 09.01.08 at 2:10 pm

You guys (Isis and pommy) have nailed it when it comes to Nastia’s routine. Her legs separate on every other skill, and she should be getting hammered on her dismount, but don’t forget that she does a reverse hecht that BARELY clears the bar!! They should be taking at least .2 or .3 on that for amplitude. Nastia also missed two of her handstands.

As far as Cheng Fei goes, I do agree that a fall should not be allowed to place you in the Olympic Finals. What I disagree with is that she didn’t beat Alicia in the finals with the current deductions that are being taken. I have heard many people comment that there should have been more deductions taken on the board and the table for Cheng Fei. I agree, but the judges on vault have consistently NOT applied these deductions. If they did, every one of Shawn Johnson’s vaults would have to be .2 to .3 lower, and Alicia would have to be deducted for the ridiculous amount of pike she has in her hips when she hits the table. I wish they were taking these deductions, but they are not, at least not to the level they should be, and therefore, in my opinion, the vault finals ended up in the correct order. The current system (that I am hoping with all my soul will change) rewarded difficulty, and not execution, and Cheng Fei took advantage of it.

#7 shergymrag on 09.01.08 at 3:32 pm

Cheng Fei actually left the arena after she vaulted. My guess is she didn’t think she was going to medal. I don’t think it’s quite fair to portray the situation as her “taking advantage” of the poor judging on vault. She was definitely the beneficiary of such judging though.

And you can’t take a .2 deduction anymore. I think the judges would be less likely to box the B scores if they could take deductions in .05 increments again.

.3 is the most you can take for insufficient height on a flight element so if you take that for Nastia, how do you separate her from your Ivana Hongs? I don’t think Nastia’s Tkatchev is .3 low. It may not be the most humungous Tkatchev I’ve ever seen but it’s not especially low either.

#8 Isis on 09.01.08 at 3:53 pm

“Cheng Fei actually left the arena after she vaulted. My guess is she didn’t think she was going to medal. I don’t think it’s quite fair to portray the situation as her “taking advantage” of the poor judging on vault. She was definitely the beneficiary of such judging though.”

Was it poor judging, or merely poor Code? I’m not an expert, so I really can’t tell whether the judges did their job or not (I mean, okay, they could’ve deducted more from Cheng, but then, they could’ve deducted more from A-Sac, so perhaps it evens out). In any case, whether the judges did their job or not, the Code leaves way too much room for medaling with a fall, and that needs to change.

#9 George N on 09.01.08 at 5:01 pm

If the B-deductions were applied as per the code of points there would be no controversy. We do not need to “fix” the COP any further, as historical evidence indicates it will not make the slightest bit of difference. Vaulting deductions do not need to be doubled, they just need to be correctly applied. Any vault that lands way short obviosly has much more than just form breaks, it has other technical deductions that led to the error in the first place. If these are not ignored (as they largely seemed to be at the games) the scores should fall in line with the actual performances.

As for height in releases, there is no specific requirement listed in the code as to what the minimum requirement should be, and thus it’s left for interpretation of the individual judges. I personally believe that Ivana Hong is certainly in the gray area of what is acceptable, I do not believe that Nastia is in question. Just because there are some phenomenally huge releases done by some of the top athletes, we should not expect that such amplitude should be considered standard by any means, just as the inverted technique shown by Nastia or the phenomenal extension shown by Xiao on Pommels cannot be expected as a minimum standard for others.

#10 TCO on 09.01.08 at 7:25 pm

I think I’ve seen guidelines for the amplitude on release catches in either this code or the next. They go off of the body height at catch, though.

#11 Troy on 09.01.08 at 11:11 pm

“I don’t think it’s quite fair to portray the situation as her “taking advantage” of the poor judging on vault.”

If you had read the line before this in my comment, shergymrag, you would have noticed that I was talking about the system, not the judges. She was doing more difficult vaults, and that is what was being rewarded by this system. What’s more is that I am not in the slightest, criticizing her or any other athlete for doing it. I hate boy bands, but more power to them for raking in all the money they can by using the popularity to their advantage.

I’m not sure what you mean by them not being able to take a .2 deduction for a release. Did I miss something? Are they suddenly not allowed to take even numbered deductions? What are you saying exactly? As far as separating Ivana from Nastia, that is where I think the deductions need to be even bigger, because I do agree with you that Ivana’s is lower. I would be tempted to come up with, if it were up to me, a system that would not even allow that to be called a reverse hecht and therefore not even receive value credit. But that is a whole other discussion.

“I think the judges would be less likely to box the B scores if they could take deductions in .05 increments again.”

That would be the absolute worst thing that they could do right now. What we need are bigger deductions, not smaller ones. Once gymnastics decided to do away with the fan-friendly scoring of the 10.0 system, there was no point in using a “pick a little here, pick a little there” system. That is the whole problem with women’s NCAA gymnastics currently.

As far as holding other athletes to higher standards, that doesn’t make any sense, George. That is what gymnastics has been about from the very beginning. The whole sport is based on what someone shows “can” be done. If someone does something amazing, then anyone who follows up and does it, must be held to those standards or create a new standard. That is one of the problems with gymnastics currently–lots of athletes doing skills that they really aren’t that good at to begin with, because the judges don’t hammer the execution on it. The main reason everyone’s drawers are up in bunches about Nastia getting “ripped off” is because of the pirouette work she does. It is not because she is amazing with releases, etc. And that’s fine, but she still has to come up to the standards of individual skills. If she is so good at 3/4 of the things that are in her routine that the other 1/4 don’t keep her from winning, then that’s great. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. But, there has to be a standard with which to judge a full bar routine. Releases should be held to the standards of Brandy Johnson, Liz Tricase, etc. Pirouettes should be held to the standards started by gymnasts like the Chinese and Nastia, etc. Dismounts should be held to the standards of gymnasts like Elise Ray, etc. That’s why the execution deductions are so useless right now. If the judges would hold all gymnasts to the ultimate standard, there would be a much better separation and you would really get to see who had the very best bar routine, and not just gymnasts who get by on one skill or two (such as a German giant) to make a name and reputation for themselves.

You also mentioned, George, that there are other deductions that led to the fall for Cheng Fei. That is true, but these deductions were not applied with other vaulters, either. As I said earlier, Shawn and Alicia would both be hit harder than they were. On looking at Cheng’s vault later, though, she is lucky that there weren’t a couple of judges that saw that vault as landing a knee at the same time as her foot. In that case, it would have been a voided vault, and this would have all been moot.

As far as deductions for height on releases, there are amplitude deductions that can be applied to any and all skills that have flight, whether on bars or any event. It is nonsense to think that release elements should not be expected to show height and dynamics.

#12 George N on 09.02.08 at 2:02 am

I’m not sure whether you’ve ever judged or even coached Troy but you are way off base to think that one single athlete should redefine and set standards for the entire planet. To think that everyone is capable of achieving Xiao’s extension, for example, is unrealistic. His body type and proportions factor in as much as his skill and talent, and it certainly does not mean that somebody like Berki all of a sudden does crap for routines. In a few of the old codes we had a category called virtuosity which would reward exceptional execution and amplitude, that seems to me to a much better way of differentiating than simply hammering everyone else for technical insufficiencies (if applied properly – which it wasn’t). Height and dynamics in releases are one thing, to “demand” the amplitude that He Kexin demonstrates on regrasp of her Yaeger for example, is another. I would imagine that very few coaches, never mind the gymnast, would ever chance such height and rotation. If it was that easy everyone would be doing it, but currently I see only one individual of the 5.something billion on this planet that is that capable.

Going back to vault, it is unimportant who got what deductions, I stand by my original statement that if the B-panel did it’s job as per the COP the rankings would have been proper. Whether Cheg’s knees made any contact with the floor is unimportant as the judges have to make that call in real time, and do not have the benefit of the super slo-mo that you do, but the other deductions were certainly never in question. Think also about the fact that the same panel managed to find .5 deduction for Nastia, who with the unaided eye seemed to have no errors, and even in super slow-mo one had to struggle to find any faults at all. Can you spell c_h_e_a_t_i_n_g ?

#13 George N on 09.02.08 at 2:07 am

By the way Troy, if Brandy Johnson and Liz Tricase were to be held to the same standards as some of the non-US bar workers they too would be getting hammered on amplitude. Certainly I have seen bigger over the years…

#14 shergymrag on 09.02.08 at 4:32 am

“If you had read the line before this in my comment, shergymrag, you would have noticed that I was talking about the system, not the judges.”

For one thing, I was lumping the whole situation together. For another, with the current rules she could have just as easily not gotten the bronze. When it comes down to it, it’s the judges that gave her the bronze so I specified the judges. In any case, you can replace the words “the judges” with “the system” for what I said and I still stand by it.

“I don’t think it’s quite fair to portray the situation as her “taking advantage” of the THE SYSTEM on vault”

During one of the previous code cycles, Blaine Wilson used to crash his double front vault regularly. He did the vault anyway because the score it would get was comparable to an easier vault done decently and he wanted to focus on learning the double front anyway. He eventually got the vault but he definitely took advantage of the system when he was still learning it. Cheng Fei left the arena after she vaulted. Maybe she was picking up her stuff and heading to the bathroom but I think her intention was to land that vault, not crash on it and see if she could still get a score good enough for a medal.

Also, I didn’t comment because I thought you were picking on Cheng Fei. “Taking advantage” of the rules is actually tried and true strategy. I just thought it wasn’t an accurate description of her actual strategy.

“I’m not sure what you mean by them not being able to take a .2 deduction for a release. Did I miss something? Are they suddenly not allowed to take even numbered deductions? What are you saying exactly”

I’m saying there’s no .2 deduction. In general it’s .1 for a small fault or .3 for a medium fault. For other skills, it can be .5 for a large fault. I don’t think judges were allowed to take .5 for a large amplitude fault because that column is blank in this last code. It’s not sudden. It’s been this way since they implemented the new code in 2006.

#15 Troy on 09.03.08 at 4:00 am

I have been a full-time competitive coach for over 23 years, and have had many gymnasts compete in college and at level 10 Nationals, but I have not been a judge and do not have experience with the elite level, other than testing a couple of kids in compulsories, so I will concede a few points to both of you, especially in regards to specific deductions, etc. I have read the code a few times, but am by no means, an expert on it. I have not paid that much attention to specific deductions at the elite level, so I will take your word for it on those. If that’s true though about the .2, and they have no discretion on those kinds of things, that seems like it could be part of the problem. I am sure that there are lots of judges who feel it would be too harsh to hit certain skills with a .3, and so they are left with the .1, which really might not be enough in that instance. I can see where that may have come into play on Cheng Fei’s vault.

George, you and I are not disagreeing about vault. What I said was that there was the possibility that a judge from the angle they were sitting at, may have thought that she touched her knee as she landed, and I remember kind of thinking that when I saw it in regular speed as well. I agree that the judging in general on that event is not harsh enough, but my point was that it is pretty consistently that way. I’m not sure, though, why everyone keeps talking about cheating. I don’t see why those judges would do that, and what they would have had to gain from excluding Alicia, etc. I would be interested in a theory as to why you think that is cheating, and not just incompetence. In general, I think all judging should be harsher, so that the coaches that I see on a seasonal basis would have to get their acts together and get back in the gym and train skills the way that they should be trained. As it is now (and I am not necessarily talking about the Olympic level) I think it is a very difficult thing for parents to see the difference between the gyms that are truly doing their jobs as far as training the basics and giving gymnasts a strong foundation, and gyms that do not. Which brings me to my other point. I still think that gymnasts should be held to that higher standard. I do think that they should all be hit for not reaching that ultimate standard. I am pretty sure that I have been involved with this sport as long as nearly anyone that posts on here, and so, yes, I do know how rare all of those things are. But, that is kind of my point. Because we don’t hold things up to those standards we end up with not nearly enough disparity. As I said before, anyone who has witnessed NCAA vaulting knows what I am talking about. The vaults at those meets are not as close together as we have come to believe. I had said in another post that I love when we go to a meet and Connie Maloney is judging, especially in the compulsory levels. A few years ago at the Circle of Stars meet in Indy, there were probably 300 level 6s (I’m not sure about this number–it could be more or possibly a few less), and there was one bar score (Connie’s event that weekend for the 6s) that was over a 9.0. We heard all kinds of complaining that weekend from other coaches, but we, as a staff, loved it. It gave us the opportunity to talk to our kids even more about what we had already been telling them about what they needed to do on bars, and what standard should be expected. As much as you might explain these things to a kid, when they continually are scored 9+ at a meet, and are staying competitive withor even just behind kids that may have a better bar routine, it sometimes is just noise. My point here is that I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a standard of excellence and anything short of that should get deducted. I remember the virtuousity stuff, and I thought it was great, but we don’t have that now. If we did, my opinion would probably be different.

Also, I have been watching gymnastics since the early 70s, and I don’t remember seeing anyone do releases higher than the 2 I mentioned, other than maybe some other Americans, but I admit that I may not have seen as many gymnasts from other countries as you have, so that is one point I will concede. Even then, though, Liz and Brandy would not get “hammered” in any way, shape or form. They may lose a tenth, but I would be very surprised if you could show me any female gymnast ever, that could be considered to be more than .1 above them in amplitude. I’m not sure that you are remembering correctly exactly how high they did their releases. At one point, Liz was actually competing two Tkatchevs in a row, and it would be next to impossible to do that without a massive first one.

shergymrag, I stand corrected as far as the scoring goes. I am a huge Cheng Fei fan. I thought she was a joy to watch throughout the Olympics, not just because of her gymnastics, but her personality, etc., and I will agree with you that I don’t think she went into the meet with the intent that she could fall and still medal. I can guarantee you, though, that her coaches knew where she stood with her difficulty and they knew that some smaller mistakes would not knock her out of the running. So, yes, they took advantage of the system. Anyone who has seen Cheng Fei vault in the past, however, knows how great she is, and that she has done both those vaults much better than that, so she was fine, in my opinion, to take advantage of a system that rewards difficulty. Where the system is hurting the sport, and more specifically kids is that this rewarding of difficulty has some coaches sending their kids out there with skills that they can either barely do (as in the example you gave of Blaine He was a big boy, of course and could make that decision himself, so I have no problem with that) or have never done, and hoping that they just hit it that one time, because the score will be worth the risk. I would be scared to find out the number of girls who have had to have knee surgery because their coaches continued to put them out in the competitive arena trying to do a handspring front on vault that they could not do. I have watched in agony as girls with both knees wrapped, have landed in warm-ups on their butt or in a deep squat, over and over again, only to see them put the vault into a little less deep of a squat in competition with their adrenaline flowing. The reward for that? Usually a 9.0+ that makes them competitive on vault for that meet. So, what happens? That gymnast continues to train that vault incorrectly or without the tools to EVER do it correctly and safely, because the system has rewarded it. Meanwhile the parents are fooled by a coach that does not have their daughter’s safety at heart, because the system rewarded that vault. To the parent, her daughter is just as good as the gymnast that has trained that vault correctly and safely. I am not saying that I have the perfect answer of how to correct that, other than holding these things to a higher standard (taking more deductions on the table and pre-flight, etc.), but it is a very frustrating thing for me to watch on a continual basis. And, unfortunately, it is just one of many, many examples, as you both probably know all too well.

Overall, guys, I don’t think that we disagree that much about this stuff. I just want to see a higher standard for the sport. My main reason–safety for the athletes. This sport has gotten way too dangerous. The tragic accident last month to a very brave, beautiful young lady is testament to that, and I am often afraid that things are going to get worse. Hopefully, the proposed changes and work toward more artistry will help.

By the way, thanks for all of the discussion. I really do enjoy it, continue to learn things from all of it, and appreciate it. As we are beginning to pursue an elite program in our gym, all of this is very helpful.

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