Raising His Focus to the 10th Degree

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

During his hiatus from gymnastics, Olympic all-around gold medalist Paul Hamm earned a degree in accounting. It will serve him well at the 2008 Beijing Games.

The sport's scoring system remains inscrutable to all but gymnastics insiders. It's based on two mind-bending calculations: a determination of each routine's "start value" (degree of difficulty), minus deductions that are shaved off in increments of one-tenth of a point.

As a result, coaches are scripting routines tailor-made to exploit the code. And gymnasts are thinking as much about decimal points as they are artistry while they're performing.

The quest for tenths-of-points was central to the conversation when Hamm and his coach, Miles Avery, weighed his prospects for returning to the sport after his two-and-a-half year break.

"We looked over the code and we talked about routines," Avery said earlier this month after Hamm won the American Cup, his first international competition since the 2004 Athens Games. They identified the rings as the apparatus Hamm needed to focus on, upgrading his routine's difficulty from four years ago.

"That's where we needed to close the gap and get better," Avery said. "You have to be a better athlete in 2008 than 2004."

Former Russian Olympian Valeri Liukin thinks just as much about tenths-of-points -- particularly after the 2007 world championships, in which he felt judges robbed his daughter, Nastia, of gold on the uneven bars for shortchanging her routine's start value.

So in preparation for the American Cup, he packed her routine with more of the most difficult skills (called "E-level" skills) and linked several together to collect the two-tenths bonus for performing E-level skills in sequence. Nastia won the competition, thanks largely to an uneven bars routine that boasts the highest start value ever performed.

"We decided to go better by far," Valeri Liukin explained. "And then you have no chance to take it away from her."

-- Liz Clarke

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