[Paleopsych] WP Outlook: The Athletes Shouldn't Take the Fall

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sun Aug 29 21:50:18 UTC 2004

The Athletes Shouldn't Take the Fall

[Now these reforms I can approve of, though I'm certainly open to other 
ideas. It's just the idea of not trying to go outside the rules that I'm 
leery of. And this attitude may be behind a growing disrespect for the law 
as such that has taken place over the last 30-40 years.

[I recall grave discussions, which we hear no more, about civil 
disobedience before that time, which are reflected in John Rawls' _A 
Theory of Justice_ (1972). And in one Perry Mason novel, all a Federal 
narcotics official had to do to stop a court proceeding was to display his 
badge. I must say that my inclination when I encounter an unjust, or just 
stupid, law is to resort to cost-benefit calculations and consider whether 
I can get away with violating the law. I remember in 1969 that in 
Fredericksburg, VA, there were walk-don't walk signs at intersections with 
one-way streets that were set for two-way streets and therefore manifestly 
wrong. Yet the people there waited without any apparent expression on 
their faces about the stupidity of it all. I don't know about 
Fredericksburg today, but at least in DC, pedestrians rarely hesitate to 
cross a street illegally, even in the presence of policemen. I got a $5 
ticket once and now do wait (probably unnecessarily) during the last few 
days of the month when cops supposedly need to meet their monthly quota.

[As an outside observer, I don't know what the optimal respect for the 
laws is, which could be a function of how ridiculous the government is. 
Another factor is the destruction of place in American life, thanks to 
cheap transportation and the Internet, meaning that local laws are not 
felt as binding as before. The Net may have increased the perception that 
the government *is* ridiculous, too. These are permanent changes. But 
there may be generational factors as well. Respect for authority is high 
when a Howe-Strauss "civic" generation is in charge, the G.I. "greatest" 
generation being the last one and the rising generation coming up.]

    By Joy Goodwin
    Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page B01

    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

    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

    Author's e-mail:

    [3]mail at joygoodwin.com

    Joy Goodwin is a writer and television producer, and the author of
    "The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption, and the Battle for Olympic
    Gold" (Simon & Schuster), which goes behind the scenes of the 2002
    Olympic pairs skating competition.

                      © 2004 The Washington Post Company


    1. http://ad.doubleclick.net/jump/wpni.printarticle/sunday/outlookdcopt=ist;dir=outlooknode;dir=print;dir=sunday;dir=outlook;page=article;kw=;ad=ss;ad=bb;pos=ad21;sz=160x600;tile=20;abr=!ie;ord=1093813227112?
    2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/
    3. mailto:mail at joygoodwin.com

More information about the paleopsych mailing list