Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gymnastics vs. Track and Field

Hooked on the Olympics like so many others, Ann Althouse states her preference for gymnastics over track and field, and her argument is reasonable:

I like the events where form and complexity vary infinitely. I can develop my own perception and judgment, and if the judges do something else, I can think about that and try to figure it out or get pissed off.

It's a reasonable argument, but one with which I strongly disagree. First, I don't think it's really true that "form and complexity vary infinitely" in gymnastics competitions, given the number of required elements in so many of the events. But the main problem with the argument can be summed up in her comment, "if the judges do something else." Well, that's the thing, isn't it. The judges are charged with making subjective judgments about very specific elements in a performance, with the goal of identifying the competitor who completes the best performance. While form and complexity can play a role in the perception of each judge (if, for instance, a competitor on the floor exercise is more "artistic" than his/her competitors, a judge might be inclined to award a higher score for that competitor), each judge is also expected to fairly and objectively deduct an equal number of points from each competitor based on a designated list of errors developed by the sport's governing body.

Let's assume that the judges in this Olympics have been fair and completely above-board with respect to their treatment of the individual competitors. If that is the case, then the only explanation for the awarding of a medal to an exercise which can clearly be demonstrated to be unworthy of the award (I'm talking about the bronze medal awarded in the women's vault) is incompetence - the judges simply don't know what they're doing. What they have to offer isn't any different or better than what you hear from Randy or Paula on any given week of "American Idol." And that's how you're making decisions in the most prominent event in the sport? Come on.

About track, Althouse goes on to say:

What's the point of monitoring races to see who crosses a line first?

Well, I suppose I'd say that the point is that in track, form and complexity vary infinitely. There is more strategy involved in a 10,000 meter race than there is in an entire week of gymnastics events. Sure, it's about who crosses the line first. But in many races, the "fastest" person doesn't win. The history of the Olympics is littered with the memories of track favorites who went home without a medal. In many of those cases, tactics and strategy kept the favorite off the medal stand. Every now and then, there is a super-human performance, the likes of which was seen on Saturday from Usain Bolt. But that's the exception that proves the rule.

You can make a similar argument for just about every event in track and field. And that's why I prefer track and field to gymnastics, or any other event which is left to the whims of subjective judgments from people who even the experts seem to agree are not necessarily qualified for the job.

No comments: