ATHENS, Aug. 24 -- The gymnastics competition at the 2004 Olympic Games produced some extraordinary performances, but ultimately was overshadowed by judging controversies that pitted nation against nation, fans against officials and athlete against athlete.
Left in its wake is a pile of paperwork and protests that could result in a scoring overhaul, in much the same way the 2002 Salt Lake City figure skating scandal brought reform to another of the Olympics' most popular -- and subjective -- sports.
"Because it's a subjective sport, that will always be a problem," said Evgeny Marchenko, coach of American Carly Patterson, who won the women's all-around gold. "There is always room for improvement. More educated judges and more independent judges would probably be helpful. But I think the problem will always be there."
Among Tuesday's developments:
Adrian Stoica, technical director of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), admitted he intervened in the scoring of Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov's breathtaking high-bar routine Monday night, saying he felt the scores of two judges were out of line. The crowd so loudly booed and heckled the judges that the competition could not continue for 8 1/2 minutes.
Disgruntled Russian officials drafted a sweeping letter of complaint to the International Olympic Committee, alleging that Nemov and another of their top gymnasts, Svetlana Khorkina, were cheated out of medals.
Canadian Olympic officials filed a protest over scoring in the men's vault, demanding to know how judges could have awarded bronze to Romania's Marian Dragulescu, who fell on the second of his two vaults, over their own Kyle Shewfelt, who finished fourth after landing both of his.
And South Korean officials have not dropped their protest over the unfair scoring of Yang Tae Young in the men's all-around. Three judges were suspended for mistakenly denying him a tenth of a point, allowing Paul Hamm of the United States to win the gold medal. Some are calling for Hamm to surrender his medal; others demand a duplicate gold for the wronged Korean.
It's increasingly doubtful that medals will change hands. Only the IOC has the authority to do that, and won't act unless requested by FIG, which governs the sport. FIG issued a statement last week saying Hamm would retain his gold despite the error and has refused to comment further.
Stoica opposes awarding a second gold to Yang. "Definitely not," he said. But he concedes that judging can be improved. "No human product cannot be improved," Stoica said. "For sure we are looking always to improve the judges, the rules and the judges' quality."
But Stoica sees no evidence that any of the judging irregularities were motivated by favoritism despite sentiments to that effect in South Korea, Canada and Russia. "I refuse to believe that," Stoica said. "If we find politics inside, then be sure that we will take action."
The bigger problem in the eyes of many coaches and gymnasts lies in the sport's Code of Points, which dictates how routines are scored.
Gymnastics judging starts with the concept of perfection. Assuming the routine is sufficiently rigorous, each athlete begins with 10.0 points. His final score is what remains after judges whittle tenths and hundredths for glitches such as bent knees, splayed legs and wobbly landings. But the code includes no mechanism for rewarding athletes who exceed perfection, like Nemov did in his high-bar routine. The gymnast who surpasses previously accepted standards of perfection -- either with a radical new skill or unparalleled virtuosity -- gets no bonus.
"There's no reward for originality anymore in the sport," said 1984 Olympic all-around silver medalist Peter Vidmar, now a commentator for the Westwood One radio network. "You don't see something new and creative that much anymore. It's really a formula."
Paul Ziert, coach of former Olympic champion Bart Conner, said he believes only radical changes in the scoring can restore the sport's credibility and excitement.
"There is nothing in it for creativity and innovation; you don't get paid a cent for that anymore," Ziert said. "I hate that our sport is controlled, dominated and dictated by officials. If you get booed as officials for 10 minutes, I think that's a pretty strong indication that you better make some changes."
Amid the roar of 12,000 fans Monday night, Stoica strode to the judges' table and asked the two men who had issued the lowest marks to Nemov to reconsider. Neither judge had committed an error. But in Stoica's view, they had applied the gymnastics rulebook too strictly and, in doing so, produced a result that differed wildly from the jeering fans and numerous coaches, commentators and former Olympic champions who looked on in disbelief.
Moments later and without explanation, Nemov's score jumped 0.037 of a point, to 9.762 (out of a perfect 10.0).
In an interview Tuesday morning, Stoica discussed his reasons for intervening.
"Mr. Nemov had a very spectacular exercise," Stoica said. The Russian whipped around the high bar like a windmill, then flung himself in the air to perform wild acrobatic stunts before grasping the bar again. Most of his competitors did three so-called "release moves." Nemov, the defending Olympic high-bar champion, did five -- each more sensational than the last, hurling his body higher each time. But like the other gymnasts, Stoica noted, Nemov also got slightly out of position with each daring flip -- cause for a deduction under the rule book.
Four among the six-judge panel issued scores of 9.70 or higher. The Canadian and Malaysian judges scored him at 9.60 and 9.65, respectively.
"These two judges observed very strictly this kind of mistake and made probably a little bit too much deduction for every single release," Stoica explained. "I asked them to try to get into the general [range] of the routine, and they did it without any problem. . . . It was a little bit too severe of a deduction, that's all."
Nemov's tweaked score was hardly enough to appease the irate crowd. Nor did it change the outcome in the high-bar finals; Nemov still finished fifth, as he would have with his original score. But the gyrations behind the unorthodox scoring change shed light on the subjective nature of judging in gymnastics and the passion it inflames.
It's a regrettable outcome, says Vidmar, who feels the fabulous performances have been overshadowed by the second-guessing that followed them. "Now that we've opened this box and said, 'Let's review everything that's been done over these two weeks,' it ruins it for the kids," he said. "They can't celebrate their first place or their third place or whatever it was that was draped around their neck, because there's no closure."