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Winning By a Nose: The Judge's

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:

Baseball

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.

Football

Simple stuff, you'd think: Large men put on pads, and violence ensues. There is running, throwing, catching, kicking, tackling, spitting and butt-patting. There are no effete, snippety judges saying that a certain catch has a starting value of 7.4 and an execution value of 9.1.

But wait: The judges -- um, referees -- do have to decide if the catch is really, in fact, a catch, a decision so difficult that it can shut down a game for five minutes or more while the refs stare at the videotape. Medieval scholars didn't take that long to calculate the angel-capacity of the head of a pin.

Another philosophical conundrum is pass interference. Did the defender, for example, "hinder" the receiver in a manner requiring a penalty, or was that just (per the 2006 NFL Rulebook, Rule 8, Section 2, Article 5) "incidental contact"? Was the tripping of the receiver a case of "inadvertent tangling of feet"?

You want subjectivity, you need merely look at the holding calls. Offensive linemen routinely hold, maul, bear-hug and bite defenders without shame. Refs usually don't call it, until suddenly they get a hankering to throw the flag.

"You're always going to have situations where your judgment is not correct," says NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira, a former referee. "Even then you have to ask why. The one thing we always look at there is, can we bring in rules that will make things more black-and-white and really limit the gray."

He said every play of every game is reviewed by an eight-person team. The league's goal is for 97 percent of the plays to be called accurately. Last year, he said, the referees got it 97.23 percent correct. The only game he's ever seen that had no officiating mistakes was played in a deluge. No one dared pass the football. Punted balls splashed into the swamp with no chance of a return. The perfect game!

Basketball

Subjectivity is intrinsic to basketball, because referees have to call fouls. If you're a superstar, the other players can't even breathe on you. If you're a no-name, the other players can blatantly give you judo chops. Earlier this year, former NBA referee Tim Donaghy claimed, via his lawyer, that referees have skewed their calls to favor teams that draw more TV viewers.

Donaghy strongly suggested that the fix was in during the infamous 2002 Game 6 playoff match between the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers, a game so badly officiated in favor of the Lakers that Ralph Nader demanded a full investigation. Yes, Nader -- as though the game were some ol' Corvair! (The NBA has denied Donaghy's allegations.)

Subjectivity, in short, is built into all sporting endeavors. And some sports embrace it. Like synchronized swimming. The American coach told The Washington Post that his swimmers are going to tell a "narrative" about "light" that's like a "science-fiction movie" and will be (as our correspondent puts it) "so complex he is certain most of the people watching will not understand."

So how will anyone score that? (We'll guess: very, very low.)

Gymnastics has concluded, and no doubt there will be some calls for further refinements in the judging. But here's the contrarian truth of the matter: In some cases the big problem was that the judging tried to be too scientific, too numerically precise.

In 2007 the international organization governing gymnastics revised the scoring to make it more objective. Judges were given limited flexibility. A small step was a .10 deduction, a large step a .30 deduction, and so on.

But nowhere could the judges write down the thing that couldn't be reduced to a simple number: She looked horrible. She blew it. She went splat.

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