A fascinating look at scoring trends

I did a little research.

With so many continued controversies about execution scores in today’s code of points and the curious manner in which scores seem to be “trapped” between an 8.5 and a 9.0 regardless of the performance, I decided to look at some scoring trends over the past five years.  Five years is how long we’ve had the new open-ended scoring system in place, and thus we’ve now had five world or Olympic competitions with 14’s, 15’s and 16’s running around everywhere.  It’s easy to forget that underneath all those complicated numbers lies an execution score that’s supposed to be as simple as it ever was – it always starts from a 10.0 and subtracts deductions for each visible error.  It’s this basic, simply derived number that interests me the most.

Did you know that back in 2006, when the open-ended scoring system was first put in place, judges were actually giving some high execution scores?  It might be hard to believe since we’ve become so accustomed to seeing 8.9’s for flawless routines nowadays, but it’s true.  Below I’ve put together charts for both the men and the women that shows the highest execution score given in the event final for every event contested at the world championships or Olympics.  The difficulty scores aren’t included anywhere in these charts.  If there was a tie in execution, both gymnasts are included.

See if you can pick out the overall trend:

Women

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Vault Cheng

Fei

9.5

Cheng

Fei

9.5

Cheng

Fei

9.575

Kayla Williams 9.175 Aliya Mustafina 9.233
Bars Beth Tweddle 9.3 Beth Tweddle 9.225 Anastasia Koval

9.075

He

Kexin

8.9

Beth Tweddle 8.933
Beam Elise Hopfner-Hibbs

9.175

Nastia Liukin

9.425

Nastia Liukin

9.425

Deng

Linlin

8.6

Alicia Sacramone

8.966

Floor Cheng

Fei

9.475

Shawn Johnson 9.15 Nastia Liukin 9.225 Lauren Mitchell 8.75 Vanessa Ferrari

9.1

Men

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Floor Kyle Shewfelt

&

Jordan Jovtchev

9.5

Diego Hypolito

&

Gervasio Deferr

9.45

Zou

Kai

9.35

Marian Dragulescu

9.1

Eleftherios Kosmidis

&

Thomas Bouhail

9.1

Pommel Horse Xiao

Qin

9.725

Xiao

Qin

9.7

Xiao

Qin

9.475

Zhang Hongtao

9.6

Krisztian Berki

9.133

Rings Chen Yibing

9.525

Chen

Yibing

9.4

Chen

Yibing

9.3

Yan Mingyong

&

Jordan Jovtchev 8.875

Chen

Yibing

9.1

Vault Diego Hypolito 9.55 Daniel Popescu 9.675 Marian Dragulescu 9.8 Marian Dragulescu 9.55 Thomas Bouhail 9.533
Parallel Bars Hiroyuki Tomita

9.65

Anton

Fokin

9.5

Li

Xiaopeng 9.55

Kazuhito Tanaka

9.1

Feng

Zhe

9.266

High Bar Vlasios Maras

9.6

Fabian Hambuechen 9.25 Jonathan Horton 9.275 Igor Cassina 8.925 Fabian Hambuechen 8.866

With the exception of men’s vault, it would appear from the numbers that gymnasts in general are anywhere from three to seven tenths sloppier today than they were in 2006.  Is this a fact, or a function of something else going on?

One argument could be made that the difficulty scores in general have drifted upward, and thus the gymnasts are attempting more difficult skills and naturally incurring more deductions.

Keep in mind, however, that women’s routines now count only eight elements as opposed to ten as they did in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and so in theory there should be FEWER skills to deduct.

There’s one area in particular where lower execution scores today make sense, and that is on women’s floor.  The new landing deductions put in place in 2009 have dramatically changed the way this event is scored; note that the top E-score in 2009 (Lauren Mitchell) was about seven tenths lower than the top E-score in 2006 (Cheng Fei).

However, higher difficulty and women’s floor landings don’t explain the whole trend here.  Judging in general has become much more harsh, much more unreasonable, and much less rewarding of deserving routines than ever before.  A 9 is like the new 10 in today’s judging, but just a few years ago it wasn’t that way.  Go back and watch the women’s 2006 world balance beam final, and you’ll be shocked to see that FIVE of the eight gymnasts were actually given above a 9.0 in execution – most of them with several wobbles and some missed connections (watch Izbasa’s routine!).  Compare to this year’s top E-score of 8.966, practically a slap in the face for the sharpest and most flawless routine of Alicia Sacramone’s life.

Men’s high bar judging has perhaps become the most outrageous and unpredictable; sometimes the cleanest routine receives an 8.7 and sometimes the sloppiest routine receives an 8.9, but the rule is no one gets above a 9.0.  I miss the days even four years ago when 9.5’s and 9.6’s were given to clean routines, and only the guys with obvious significant deductions were scoring down in the 8’s.

I think some experts have adopted the mindset over the past few years that the answer to “lack of artistry” in our sport today is simply “stricter judging.”  The idea makes some sense intuitively – if we just demand higher standards of execution (however unattainable they may be), the gymnasts will surely clean up all the details in an effort to reach these standards.  But it hasn’t worked.  The problem is that the standards have not only been raised higher than ever before – they’re so high they can’t even be accurately measured by human eyes anymore.  In an effort to make the sport more objective, we’ve asked judges to actually make more subjective decisions than ever before.  Judges are asked to be walking protractors nowadays; as they are expected to somehow assess with their human eyes precisely how many degrees away from a specific angle a gymnast’s body is while doing complicated pirouettes, dance elements, etc., and to do so multiple times within one routine and assign the exact appropriate deduction every time.  We ask them to precisely assess a gymnast’s body shape, toepoint, and split position in mid-air, and we’re now asking them to evaluate landing position, exact sizes of steps and hops, and whether a gymnast properly “opened” before landing even extremely difficult flipping skills.  And all of this nonsense is to be applied to larger numbers of skills – not to mention more difficult skills – than our sport has ever seen.  Perhaps the craziest part of it all is how mad we all get when their numbers don’t agree with each other.

As we strive for a resurgence of artistry, stricter rules are not the solution; in fact, they’re part of the problem.  Today’s execution standards have not created less subjectivity in our sport; they’ve created MORE subjectivity that is simply disguised as objectivity.  Who are we kidding?  A human being can no more accurately judge a routine by today’s standards than he or she can count the stars in the sky.  The result has been a conglomeration of scores all in a safe “medium” range that does nothing more than reveal the widespread uncertainty among judges about how good a routine truly was.

In a sense, I don’t necessarily blame the judges for today’s execution scoring problem, as we have asked them to do the impossible – just as we have asked the gymnasts to do.  I think the time has come to readdress the entire scoring system and acknowledge that it hasn’t fulfilled its mission.  I miss the days when judges felt free to throw out a 9.8, a 9.9, or even a 10.0 when a gymnast was magnificent.  There’s nothing in today’s rules that says that can’t happen, but it certainly isn’t happening, even when it would seem well justified by human standards.  Something’s gotten lost in translation in the way these rules are being applied.

For now, we’ll just have to pretend the 8.9’s are 9.9’s and appreciate beautiful gymnastics even when the judges fail to.  Perfect gymnastics is perfect gymnastics regardless of what the scores say.  So next time an 8.8 looks like it should have been a 9.8, remember that behind every one of those silly numbers sits a cowardly judge  who was afraid to look like he or she missed something.

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