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The 2004 OlympicsGymnastics judging—inscrutable no more!

Like you could tell the difference Like you could tell the difference
In Wednesday's men's all-around competition, American gymnast Brett McClure needed to nail his last event, the still rings, to win a medal. The routine looked impressive and clean—he even stuck the landing. When it was all over, McClure thrust his hands into the air in triumph. After that seemingly flawless performance, it seemed certain, at least to amateur viewers, that he would get high marks.

Instead, McClure was given a piddling 9.162 and ultimately fell to ninth place. When the score was announced, NBC color commentator Tim Daggett mentioned that the "maximum score" of the American's routine was only 9.5. That means that even if he was dead solid perfect, he couldn't have scored higher than 9.5 out of 10. Why, when needing a 9.562 to move into first place, would he perform such a low-rated routine?

According to McClure's coach, Vitaly Marinitch, he didn't intend to. In an interview, Marinitch said the judges gave the routine a lower maximum score than the coach and gymnast had anticipated—a 9.5 instead of a 9.7. There are eight Olympic judges on each "apparatus jury" along with an additional apparatus chairperson. Six of the judges keep track of deductions resulting from errors made by the gymnast; the highest and lowest of these marks is eliminated and the other four averaged. This average deduction total is then subtracted from the routine's "start value," which has been calculated by the two remaining judges. While officials note the intended start values of gymnasts' routines during pre-meet training, the actual value is based not on what the gymnast practiced, but on what he actually performs. (The exception is the vault, in which gymnasts enter the vault they're attempting into a digital podium at the end of the runway; the judges then match the skill with its predetermined start value.)

Judging is, of course, subjective, so it's not surprising that judges and gymnasts often disagree on what skills were in a routine. The disputed element in McClure's rings performance was, according to the gymnast and his coach, a "Maltese," in which the body is horizontal to the floor and the hips level with the rings. Marinitch says the apparatus chair for rings told him the judges thought McClure had performed a "planche," in which the hips are above the rings. (Re-watching the routine, McClure's hips seem very close to level with the rings, but the camera angle and my crummy eyes make it impossible to tell for certain. Unlike viewers at home, Olympic judges can't see an instant replay—there are no television monitors at the judging stand.)

Specific moves are given ratings from A, the easiest, to "Super E." Each routine must contain at least four A moves, three B moves, and three C moves. Adding difficult moves beyond these prerequisites increases the start value from the minimum—8.6 for men, 9.0 for women—up to a maximum of 10.0. Gymnasts can also earn "connection bonus" points when a routine has a tricky transition—from a D move to a D move, for example. McClure's so-called Maltese, a D move, is worth a tenth of a point more than a planche, a C move. He had also factored in a connection bonus, which would have upped his start value by another tenth.

The downgrading probably didn't cost McClure a medal—even if he had received the extra two-tenths, he would only have finished seventh. So why didn't McClure just add some harder elements to his routine? "It's really hard to do that," Marinitch said on the telephone from Athens. "In the all-around, gymnasts have already maximized their start value. They're not going to hold back. They're going to go all out. If we tried to add anything to his routine it would not have been successful."

Though Marinitch complained to the head of the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique about the judges' ruling, the FIG does not allow protests of marks in the Olympics. (South Korea's protest of bronze medalist Yang Tae-young's score on the parallel bars is being reviewed solely to determine whether judges should be sanctioned. "It's like football," said FIG spokesman Philippe Silacci. "They cannot change the score once the game is over.") For his part, McClure seems at ease about the situation; he took a photograph of his third-place position on the scoreboard before his rings routine, he said in post-meet interviews, "Because I knew it was going to change."

Dan Kois has worked as a film executive and a literary agent. He lives in New York City.
Photograph of Brett McClure by Nigel Marple/Reuters.
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