As controversy swirled around the Olympic swimming and gymnastics venues last week in Athens, a refrain emerged among newspaper columnists and talk show hosts: Athletes who protested the results were whiners, sore losers. The unlucky victims of shoddy refereeing ought to accept their medals with grace. After all, haven't bad calls always been a part of sports?
I disagree. In sports, as in life, some injustices cry out for redress. There's nothing noble or Olympian about passively accepting a mistake by a judge or a referee. The athlete who allows an error to pass without comment, who smooths over an unjust situation to preserve the Olympics' veneer of perfection, is not some kind of stoic hero. If an athlete is wronged and goes along with it, that athlete is participating in a sort of coverup, aiding the figureheads who think it more important that an event be uncontroversial than fair.
Protests filed in legitimate situations -- such as the one lodged by South Korea on behalf of gymnast Yang Tae Young, who lost a gold medal because of a clerical error -- actually force the Games to live up to their stated ideal of fair play. And Olympic sports sorely need this challenge. Though we idealize athletics, believing it offers a purity often lacking elsewhere in life, Olympic results are all too frequently tainted by favoritism, corruption and human error. The truth is that giving athletes more power to question unfair results, and institutionalizing a system of reviews and do-overs by judges, is the only way to guarantee a level playing field.
And why not give judges the freedom to double-check results? Second chances are an accepted part of a just society. Would anyone argue that the U.S. judicial system would be stronger without the possibility of appeals? And who among us would fail to protest if our child were denied the honor of being class valedictorian because a clerk in the school office had miscalculated the grade-point average? Would we urge our child to stand idly by, to take it on the chin, to "be a good sport"? Or would we march down to the school office the next morning and demand to speak to the principal?
Young, the South Korean gymnast, found himself facing an analogous predicament. His judges admit that they accidentally gave him an incorrect maximum value of 9.9 for his parallel bars routine, instead of the 10.0 he received for the identical routine in two earlier rounds. It was a clerical error -- an objective mistake -- and Young had every right to demand justice.
What happened to Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov a few days later, however, was more like the case of the student who doesn't make valedictorian because his English teacher gives him a B-plus instead of an A-minus. Should that student succeed in changing his grade because his parents intimidate the teacher, or because his family is particularly powerful in the local community? Of course not. But when the judges weren't as impressed with Nemov's performance on the high bar as the crowd was, the crowd booed for nearly 10 minutes. Without explanation, the judges increased Nemov's scores.
Some argue that scored sports like gymnastics are inherently biased, that one can always disagree about whether something deserved the equivalent of an A-minus or a B-plus. It's true that each judge brings cultural and aesthetic biases to the process and so, inevitably, the results are subjective. But there's a difference between a subjective result and an unfair one. It's the difference between the judge who strains to give an accurate score -- even if the crowd doesn't like it -- and the judge who arrives at the competition having already decided how he will rank the athletes. Yes, people will always disagree about whether something deserved an A-minus or a B-plus, but fair people decide the question based on the evidence in front of them.
Do Olympic judges have enough time to fairly evaluate the evidence? Often the answer is no. Making split-second calls in real time under pressure is hard, and judges make mistakes. Human error is built into officiating, and so one antidote to Olympic controversy is to allow judging do-overs. They need time to go back and review instant replays, time to look over their scores and to double-check their totals. Fundamental fairness demands that judges take a second look before awarding medals.
This isn't really a new idea. As recently as the 1970s in figure skating, every competition had a built-in interval between the end of the event and the announcement of the winners. There was time for judges to calculate and recheck their totals -- time to catch their mistakes. In the men's all-around gymnastics competition in Athens, which was decided by 0.012 of one point, it was unconscionable not to pore over the results before announcing the medalists. Think about the finals in the men's 200-meter backstroke, where a delay in the announcement of the final results meant American swimmer Aaron Peirsol went from being disqualified to being the gold medalist. The stakes are high. Judges should have time to make sure they've made the right call.
That doesn't mean that, say, gymnastics judges should go back and screen every second of videotape, searching for missed deductions that could alter the results. There must be a standard of reasonableness. But timekeepers and accountants should be certain beyond any doubt that they haven't made careless mistakes before announcing results.
Some critics argue that closer scrutiny by judges will lead to a rash of undeserved second chances. The blunt truth is that Olympic athletes don't get second chances. When a Mary Decker Slaney or a Dan Jansen stumbles, officials don't restart the race. Olympians get their one shot. But the judges in an Olympic event should have second chances, and the opportunity to use instant replay to the greatest extent possible without seriously disrupting the pace of play.
Second chances for judges are particularly important because once the medals have been awarded, an athlete like Yang Tae Young has an infinitesimal chance of a successful protest. The fact is that Olympic athletes have shockingly little recourse against unfair judging. Sport federations like the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) have a monopoly on the one thing athletes care most about: access to the Olympics. Consequently, sport federations can -- and often do -- operate as fiefdoms. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Court of Arbitration for Sport have refused to intervene on behalf of Young, leaving the FIG at the helm. The FIG's response? To admit Young should have won, to refuse to change the results, and to ask the winner, Paul Hamm, to voluntarily give up his gold medal.
When officials refuse to take responsibility, the wronged athlete has no option except to protest and risk being branded a whiner. And yet the more that athletes and the public tolerate unfair results and agree to cover them up, the worse the officiating in a sport becomes. So, like the parent who marches down to the principal's office, the South Korean gymnastics federation protested. They asked for justice for Young, and this angered many people. Because their protest drew attention to the fact that the judges -- and the Olympics themselves -- are imperfect. And the public won't accept fallible judges and flawed Games.
But judges are human beings, not stopwatches. They can and will make mistakes; the question is whether those mistakes will be permitted to stand. Experience teaches us that the IOC doesn't like to get its hands dirty, and that sport federations are notoriously reluctant to reverse themselves. Unfairly, it falls to the athlete to challenge unfair results, and those who do so in legitimate cases should be applauded for trying to make the Olympic Games more fair for future generations of athletes. It takes courage to stand up to one's sport federation, to annoy all the people who want the Olympics to run as smoothly in life as they do on tape-delayed broadcasts, to take criticism from those who confuse being a good sport with keeping your mouth shut.
To make sporting events fairer, we may have to part with some of our nostalgia for the old way of doing things. We may have to give up the instant gratification of immediately declaring a winner. But that's a small price to ensure that no athlete will be wronged at the Olympic games.