Gymnastics PR takes a double-flip, triple twist hit

“What just happened?”

That’s become the standard comment lately from me and my friends when watching the Olympic gymnastics competitions from Beijing.

First it was the age scandal, then it was the apparent bias of judges toward a hometown crowd because Chinese gymnasts could fall and still score higher than athletes from other countries who successfully completed their routines.

And, as of Monday night (broadcast time), it was the strange judging and tie-breaking system that the International Olympics Committee has created to avoid having scoring problems. Um, care to try again IOC?

In order to prevent claims of bias, the IOC decided that no country with athletes in any given competition can be a judge. OK, well that also means that no country with a decent gymnastics program will ever have a judge on a panel that is scoring gold-medal contenders. Which, in turn, means you have judges with less experience who are less competent to be judging these athletes in the first place.

That puts you into a situation like the one on Monday night (broadcast time) where a Chinese gymnast and a U.S. gymnast tied for the gold medal. Then the Chinese athlete was ranked #1 and the U.S. athlete was ranked #2. How? Well, there’s some bizarre tie-breaking system used in which several judges’ votes are discarded and then the remaining scores are compared. It’s a system that the former gold-medal gymnast doing the color commentary for NBC had a hard time explaining, I think because he had a hard time understanding it himself.

To make matters worse, the IOC also decided that this time around there could not be a dual-medal ceremony. That means that even though the two gymnasts got the same score and beat everyone else for first place, they could not both be awarded a gold medal. Why not? They award dual medals in other world gymnastics competitions.

Talk about a public relations nightmare. Most of us only pay attention to gymnastics for one week every four years. It’s the best chance of gaining new fans and, maybe, some new gymnasts whose families are willing to go through the tremendous sacrifice needed for a young athlete to compete at an international level.

Instead, this year’s Olympics gymnastics competition has done the exact opposite. It is making people frustrated and breeding distrust of the judging and the scoring. It has probably made a lot of people think, “why bother?”

The gymnastics community needs to ban together quickly on this one and start the process to get things changed for the 2012 Olympics in London.

The 2008 Olympic gymnastics competitions have been laden with scandals. They need to be addressed head-on and openly. The first step in fixing a problem is admitting to yourself that there is one. The first step in fixing the public relations from a problem is admitting it to the world. Step two is the same for both — drop the excuses and just fix the problem.

One comment on “Gymnastics PR takes a double-flip, triple twist hit

  1. News update…

    IOC asks for investigation of China’s gymnasts

    China’s He Kexin (C) shows her gold medal after the women’s uneven bars

    BEIJING (AP)—The International Olympic Committee said Friday it had asked gymnastics officials to investigate whether the Chinese women’s gymnastics team that won the gold medal had underage athletes, saying “more information has come to light.”

    “We’ve asked the gymnastics federation to look into it further,” IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said. “If there is a question mark and we have a concern, which we do, we ask the governing body of any sport to look into it.”

    The IOC, which also asked the Chinese gymnastics federation to investigate, would not give details on what new information prompted it to act now, three days after the gymnastics competition ended.

    Messages for the International Gymnastics Federation were not immediately returned.

    Chinese coach Lu Shanzhen told The Associated Press they gave the FIG new documents on Thursday to try to remove the doubts about He Kexin’s age, including an old passport, a residency card and her current ID card.

    He said all these documents were issued by various departments of the Chinese government and that he felt there was nothing more that they could do to put peoples’ minds at ease.

    The FIG has said repeatedly that a passport is the “accepted proof of a gymnast’s eligibility,” and that China’s gymnasts have presented ones that show they are age eligible. The IOC also checked the girls’ passports and deemed them valid.

    A gymnast must be 16 in an Olympic year to compete at the games. But questions about the ages of at least three of the athletes have persisted. Online records and media reports suggest three Chinese gymnasts—He, Jiang Yuyuan and Yang Yilin—may be as young as 14.

    The IOC had said previously that it had verified the passports of all athletes competing at the games.

    “We are not in a position to say ‘It’s good, it’s not good.’ It’s a government document,” FIG president Bruno Grandi said earlier this week in an interview with The Associated Press.

    The Chinese women won six medals, including the team gold and a gold on uneven bars by He. The media reports include a Nov. 3 story by the Chinese government’s news agency, Xinhua—that suggest He is only 14. She was asked about her age again after winning the uneven bars title, beating American Nastia Liukin in a tiebreak.

    “I was born in 1992 and I’m 16 years old now,” He said Monday. “The FIG has proved that. If I’m under 16, I couldn’t have been competing here.”

    Earlier this month, the AP found registration lists previously posted on the Web site of the General Administration of Sport of China that showed both He and Yang were too young to compete. He was born Jan. 1, 1994, according to the 2005, 2006 and 2007 registration lists. Yang was born Aug. 26, 1993, according to the 2004, 2005 and 2006 registration lists; in the 2007 registration list, however, her birthday has changed to Aug. 26, 1992.

    If the FIG would find evidence supporting the questions that the gymnasts are underage, it could affect four of China’s medals. In addition to the team gold and He’s gold on bars, Yang won bronzes in the all-around and uneven bars.

    “We played fair at this Olympic Games,” Liukin’s father and coach, Valeri, said after they arrived back in the United States. “… If somebody cheated, shame on them.”

    Added Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, “USA Gymnastics has always believed this issue needed to be addressed by the FIG and IOC. An investigation would help bring closure to the issue and remove any cloud of speculation from this competition.”

    Age falsification has been a problem in gymnastics since the 1980s after the minimum age was raised from 14 to 15 to protect young athletes from serious injuries. The minimum age was raised to its current 16 in 1997.

    North Korea was barred from the 1993 world championships after FIG officials discovered that Kim Gwang Suk, the gold medalist on uneven bars in 1991, was listed as 15 for three years in a row. Romania admitted in 2002 that several gymnasts’ ages had been falsified, including Olympic medalists Gina Gogean and Alexandra Marinescu.

    Even China’s own Yang Yun, a double bronze medalist in Sydney, said during an interview aired on state broadcaster China Central Television that she was 14 in 2000.



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