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12 August 2008

Messing with the Heads of Perfectionist Gymnasts

I've managed to miss almost all coverage of the Olympics, thus far (in fact, I do most years in which they are held), but I did check out the men's fencing results (my only Olympics 15 seconds of fame by association is that Britain's (saber) fencing entrant is the younger brother of a college friend) and I also spotted a short video clip on the Beeb this morning, summarising the gymnastics highlights. I do like watching gymnastics, possibly because I used to be quite good until puberty set in and I became (in the words of the terribly embarrassed gym teacher) "a bit, erm, too, er, developed." Either that, or I discovered that boys were more fun than backwards walkovers and handsprings.

I then read an article from last week's NY Times about the remixed scoring system in gymnastics. The '00s editions of Sweet Valley High have ordained that the twins must now be a perfect size four and not six, and the people in charge of gymnastics scoring have decided that with clothing size inflation and the rampant eating disorder based controversy, to have the girls aiming for a perfect ten is likely only to conflict them further.

Hence, the new system where they are marked by two separate sets of judges - one looking at techical difficulty of the routine (which rarely scores over seven) and the other evaluating the execution (which can, in theory, get a score of 10). So, most top gymnasts can hope for a score of between 14 and 18 (preferably in the odd numbers so it is less reminiscent of plus-size clothing).

Within the "technical difficulty" scoring system, each judge must allocate tenths of points based on moves (which have all been ranked for difficulty, in advance) and for combinations of moves. No more wishy-washy, subjective, "well, I thought that was a truly outstanding, Comenaciesque routine: 10," type ratings. No, let's abandon qualitative ranking in favour of some hard numbers. That way, it's harder for people to appeal ("here are the moves you completed and here are their difficulty ratings so here is your final score") although also simultaneously easier, in the event of an arithmetical error.

In fact, you almost need a degree in maths from the University of Cam to work out the scoring system (its own graduates being the only ones who can work out how - reminiscent of the American presidential elections - you can have a higher raw mark than your friend but end up lower in the ranking/with a lower-class degree because you got fewer "alphas" (awarded for harder questions) than he did, causing students - like the gymnasts - to weigh up risking answering a techically difficult question and messing it up (getting few or no marks) against playing it safe and trying to answer as many "beta" or "gamma" questions as possible).

Gymnastics sure ain't the hundred metres, anyway, where the winner is the first over the finish. You have to wonder, though where the judging of gymnastics is going and whether a cleverly trained bot could be taught to recognise different moves and rank them based on their difficulty and execution. If so, they'd have to remember to teach it to spot when the gymnasts' leotards aren't stuck to their arse properly, automatically deducting points. Roll on neurogym!

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