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Monday, August 23, 2004

Are the Olympic games sport or popularity contest?

Sport can be thought of as a function of two elements: participant effort/performance and officiating. The combination of these two elements produces an athletic event and both elements are subject to error and mistake. It is easy to dismiss the mistakes of the athletes, especially when such mistakes contribute to defeat. It seems a bit harder to accept mistakes by officials because they are supposed to be impartial and, perhaps unrealistically, perfect.

Accurate officiating is an important contribution to sport because without it (any) sport can easily devolve into anarchy. However, in subjective events such as gymnastics and skating it is sometimes difficult to determine how judges come up with their final scores. Nevertheless, judges are part of the system and, in the absence of obvious malfeasance and/or bribery, they should be held as sacrosanct as the participants' efforts.

"Controversy" in men's gymnastics, Paul Hamm (More) and Alexei Nemov indicates a fundamental confusion about what sport is about.

If the Olympics are sport, than the findings of the judges are final. It is reasonable to ask judges and officials to review a finding/decision in a timely manner, which is provided for in almost every sport in the Olympics (and the NFL, NHL and even, to a certain extent, in professional baseball). When judges respond to popular pressure alone to alter their scores they invite future pressure when popular opinion disagrees with them.

In the 2002 Winter Olympics the Russian and the Canadian mixed teams shared gold medals. In the men's high bar the crowd in Athens shut down the competition for 10 minutes or so until (two of) the judges altered their scores. Perhaps future Olympics should include another judge called "the public" with the score determined by Internet voting and in-arena push-button voting.

In sports such as diving and gymnastics (and figure skating) the inherently subjective element of judging makes it difficult to devise a system that will satisfy the public in every instance (witness the same basic controversy over the NCAA BCS football system). It is a shame that the local attendees of the Olympics failed to recognize that sport requires authority and does not perform well when ruled by popular democracy.

It will be interesting to see how future Olympics are impacted by what happened in Salt Lake City and Athens.

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