Winning By a Nose: The Judge's

Go figure: China's Cheng Fei falls during the vault finals but still earned the bronze medal in Beijing.
Go figure: China's Cheng Fei falls during the vault finals but still earned the bronze medal in Beijing. (By Amy Sancetta -- Associated Press)
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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Consternation over Olympic judging quirkiness began intensifying a few days ago after a Chinese gymnast, Cheng Fei, won the bronze medal in women's vault despite crash-landing. She landed on her shins -- a classic Agony-of-Defeat moment. Yet the judges ran the debacle through their algorithms, crunched the numbers, gnawed on the "start value," averaged in her excellent first vault, and came up with a score that put her ahead of the non-crashing American vaulter Alicia Sacramone.

Gymnastics legend Béla Károlyi bellowed, "You can't fall on your face and be rewarded with an Olympic medal, there's no way." But mysteries abounded: Shawn Johnson got stingy marks in most of her routines, and the only explanation seemed to be that the judges didn't like gymnasts built like fire hydrants.

Throughout, we've heard a refrain: "Gymnastics is a subjective sport." One sports blog at Yahoo is providing a running tally of the "real" Olympic medals count by country, with "real" defined as sports that aren't determined by (subjective, biased, insane) judges.

And yet perhaps we should admit that all sports are, at some level, subjective. Even the most hairy-chested athletic endeavors can be vulnerable to ambiguous rules, blown calls and outright fraud.

Let's go to the videotape:


It's a sport that prides itself on precision, on the perfect dimensions of the diamond, on the immaculate record-keeping across generations. Yet it's riddled with iffiness.

The home plate umpire, most prominently, calls the balls and strikes. This is an interpretive endeavor that revolves around (1) the umpire's ability to detect, through his face mask, while crouching behind a pudgy, padding-encrusted fellow, the path of a 95 mph fastball; (2) the league's peculiar definition of the "strike zone" ["The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate, the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the knee cap"]; and (3) the umpire's personal opinion about what the strike zone ought to be.

There are umps who will call a pitch a strike even when the batter couldn't reach it with a jousting lance ("his strike zone was a little bit higher than usual, and anywhere up to a foot outside," the New York Times wrote of umpire Eric Gregg's geographically quirky strike zone during the 1997 National League Championship Series).

And what about the Denkinger call? World Series, 1985, Cardinals vs. Royals, Game 6, Cards up 1-0, 9th inning: Guy named Jorge Orta hits a ground ball, is thrown out at first by half a step. Totally obvious. Not even close. But wait! He's called safe by first-base ump Don Denkinger! Royals go on to win the game and the Series.

"Mistakes do happen. It's part of life. But we feel that the human element is certainly a central part of the game," says Major League Baseball spokesman Richard Levin.

He said the league wants to use instant replay on tricky calls involving home runs (fair or foul? over the fence or not?). The umpires are resisting, saying instant replay will delay the game.

Subjective judgments may be imperfect, but they're faster than trying to obtain absolute truth.

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