So here’s the problem with gymnastics. Unlike athletics and swimming, the other big beasts of the Olympics, it requires judging; and getting judgments to match performances is the abiding challenge for a sport that has been part of the modern Games since the inaugural running at Athens in 1896.
After spending 20 years seeking – among other things – the ideal answer to this conundrum, Bruno Grandi will step down as President of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) this week at the age of 82 and shift the burden onto the shoulders of either the European Union of Gymnastics President Georges Guelzec or the secretary general of the Japanese Gymnastics Association, Morinari Watanabe, who both seek election at the 81st FIG Congress in Tokyo from October 18.
To one of these men will fall the task of deciding how next and how best to alter a scoring system that, in 2006, replaced the old model that had its limit in a perfect score of 10 – as first realized at the 1976 Montreal Olympics by Romania’s Nadia Comaneci. This raised the perennial question of how one follows perfection.
The eventual prompt for change was provided by the multiple controversies over judges’ marks at the Athens 2004 Games. The result was a more complex, open-ended code – but also a sport which many observers felt had lost something vital.
The attitude is well expressed by Vera Atkinson, who has been involved in gymnastics for almost half a century as a competitor, commentator and media adviser.
“From one side the FIG has made the judging more exact, because before there was not enough space in the scoring for excellence,” said Atkinson, who won two rhythmic gymnastics world titles representing Bulgaria in group exercises and spent 23 years as a TV commentator on the sport in her native country before taking up a position with British Gymnastics.
“But on the other side the sport has become terra incognita for the big audiences. Even for me, if you say a mark of 13.8, I must think of which discipline, which competition, which apparatus…it doesn’t mean much.
“If you say 9.8, and the maximum is 10.00, it is more telling, more revealing.
“In the sport I grew up with the most important thing was to be perfect, or to strive for perfection, and to be able to move people, to get to their souls through beauty and mastery. When you leave the gymnastics arena it should be as if you have been to the opera, or watching Margot Fonteyn. I think gymnastics now is more about mathematics.”
The irony of the situation is that Grandi himself is well aware of the shift in the balance effected by a measure he nevertheless deemed vital.
After the Rio 2016 Games, for instance, he said that he preferred the “more artistic” floor performance of Olympic silver medalist Aly Raisman to the “acrobatics” of her gold-medal winning US teammate Simone Biles.
So for a world governing body on the brink of electing only its ninth President since establishment in 1881, one of the main challenges remains to establish the ideal balance in this area. The task, to paraphrase EM Forster: “Only connect – the precision and the passion.”
And it may well be that there is no perfect answer.
After the successive disputes in the 2004 Olympic gymnastics competition Evgeny Marchenko, coach of the US winner of the 2004 all-round title, Carly Patterson, reflected: “Because it is a subjective sport, that will always be a problem. 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.”
Even at the test event for the most recent Games in April, four judges were sanctioned by FIG for questionable judgments…
Grandi has spent his life within the sport, representing the Italian junior team and narrowly missing out on the senior national title, coaching the Italian men’s team and then moving into the area of sports management, where he presided over the Italian Gymnastics Federation from 1977 to 2000 and was also vice president of the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) from 1987 to 2005. He was an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member from 2000 to 2004.
As he contemplated the final few days of his Presidency, Grandi told insidethegames that he looked back with satisfaction not just upon the alterations he had made to the judging of the sport, but also to the establishment of an international network of academies to train coaches and managers, the introduction in 1997 of a minimum age limit of 16 for international competition, and alterations to the Olympic qualification system which allowed talented gymnasts to compete even if their countries did not have the same depth of talent as the traditional powerhouses of the sport.
And of course it was under his stewardship in 2013 that the sport – along with aquatics – was officially promoted by the IOC’s Executive Board to join athletics in the Group A top tier of Olympic sports when it comes to receiving TV revenue money.
However, when asked what aspects of his 20 years as FIG President had given him most cause for satisfaction, Grandi responded with the big picture.
“Globally I can note a very positive evolution because the number of member countries has increased from around 90 to 144 in 20 years,” he said.
“When I started as FIG President, medal ceremonies were quite monotone. It was always the same anthems, and I was used to going to sleep with the Romanian and former Soviet countries’ anthems in my head.
“Now you can see eight gymnasts from eight different countries, as for example Chile and Venezuela, competing for a medal in a final, which is better for the interest in the sport.
“I am satisfied with the changes made to the competition format. I am proud of having reviewed the number of gymnasts required to compose a team and having enabled the best gymnasts of the world to take part in the Olympic Games even if they do not have a team.
“How many countries are able to have five gymnasts to compose a complete team performing on every apparatus? It was a long battle, a lot of people argued with me but at the end, I won. The best athletes will be at the Games.
“But I am also proud for having defended an age limit for the women’s competition against the opposition of many countries. Nowhere in the world should a child be obliged to work six hours every day.
“I have not totally succeeded on that front, because a few countries still try to cheat with the age of their gymnasts. Some gymnasts are so short that they can walk under the table! But I think I deserve to be thanked for the fight I led against precocity in the sport.”
Grandi has been credited with claiming that he is “obsessed with justice”. In fact, he said, that was a quality that was ascribed to him.
“It was not me who said that, but someone during a Congress who told me that I was obsessed with justice,” he said. “During these 20 years, I have always tried to introduce more justice in this sport. Sport without justice is not sport, it is just a show. Fair judgement of the athletes’ performances has been the guiding force behind my actions. This has earned me many critics but I believe in it and we have made a lot of progress. Since the past years the judges know they are controlled and they can be sanctioned.
“I can say that it has always been very, very important to me that we have a sport where there is justice for the athletes. Everything that I have done and tried to do has been linked with this idea of sportive justice, from reforming the code of points or better ways of analyzing the judging to prevent shenanigans and favoritism.
“I often fought against the great powers. There are still things that need to be done. But it is this quest for justice that has always driven me.”
Many people within gymnastics have queried his decision to scrap the 10-points system since 2006 – “some said that I was crazy – and some are still angry about it” – but Grandi believes it was the only decision possible in the circumstances.
“I began to think about abandoning the 10 when we realized that the traditional code of points could not keep up with the difficulty being done by the athletes – that is to say, that the gymnasts were doing more difficulty than could be rewarded by the code of points.
“Before, there had already been proposals for breaking with the 10, for differentiating difficulty and execution, which are two wholly different things on a conceptual level.
“But when it was especially evident at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, when I saw all the difficulty being done on the horizontal bar that couldn’t be judged in the correct manner, and that there was not a lot of variation in the scores because the difficulties exceeded the code of points, that I said, ‘Basta!’ [Enough!]
“It is the death of a system that does not take into account all the material values.
“What I call ‘material values’ are the concrete parts of the exercise.
“Gymnastics has material aspects and aesthetic aspects. The material aspects are the difficulty elements. The aesthetic aspects take into account the perfection in the execution of movement, whether maximal amplitude is reached, the elegance of the line and expression. For all these reasons, the perfect 10 was not so perfect.
“But everybody liked the perfect 10. I fought against superpowers used to getting medals. They told me that I was crazy, especially the Americans. Some said they wanted to throw me out the window, but they re-elected me all the same. Eventually the idea that we need to have judges for difficulty and judges for execution won. It has improved the evaluation system a lot. There are just a few nostalgics who come back to these questions from time to time.”
There are no imminent plans to change the scoring system ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Games, according to FIG. But there are always plans for future developments, as Grandi explained.
“The evaluation system is the biggest challenge in a sport like ours,” he said. “Last year in Tokyo, we have seen the results of studies regarding a 3D replay system able to automatically deliver difficulty scores. These researches are led by the Fujitsu Company and the FIG Executive Committee is very interested by this idea that would allow us to reduce the number of judges needed for competition.
“A couple of years ago I saw a similar project at the University of Milan but at the time the program could only analyse linear movement, not twists or somersaults. Now the Japanese researchers have found the way to reproduce complex movements and I believe it is a great chance for gymnastics.
“But it only deals with the difficulty score, not with the execution score. This 3D system would enable to get fixed difficulty scores and therefore to prevent from any possible misunderstanding. It is a great idea but for now it is just a dream.”
Whichever of the two contenders for the Presidency prevails, one of their most pressing issues will be to oversee the sport’s adaption of its governance to fall in line with Agenda 2020, the strategic roadmap for the Olympic Movement which has been championed by IOC President Thomas Bach, who is due to speak at the Congress.
“I do not support one or the other candidate because they are two very different profiles,” Grandi added. “One [Guelzec] is a technician like me, who was, like me, a gymnast of his national team. He is a good and pleasant man.
“The other is a technician, but also a businessman. He is fond of rhythmic gymnastics in a good way and he was instrumental in the great Japanese success in our sport over recent years.
“I don’t have a crystal ball to see into the future. I hope the new President will follow the vision I defended that sport without justice is not sport.
“For the rest, he can do what he wants.”
Grandi continues to appreciate the broadening of gymnastics around the world, both in terms of participation and material Olympic success.
“The medals were shared between 16 nations in Rio,” he said. “China only won two bronze medals in artistic gymnastics although it won the majority of titles in Beijing. Brazil recorded great successes with three medals.
“A British gymnast was crowned for the first time Olympic champion, even twice on the same day. And who could have imagined that a Dutch gymnast would be the queen on the balance beam? We can see a very positive evolution in the number of countries represented on the podium.
“All these changes have paid off. Gymnastics is now one of the three main sports in the Olympic program and, as FIG President, it is a great source of pride.”
By Mike Rowbottom
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.