This year marked the third consecutive Olympics in which a teen-age female gymnast captivated a worldwide audience and won the most gold medals, only to see a rival walk away with the all-around championship. The latest victim was Daniela Silivas, who lost to Yelena Shushunova of the Soviet Union via the closest vote in the history of the event. As is frequently the case in this sport, the result in Seoul was tinged with some questionable judging. And for the Romanians, it must have seemed like one too many cases of d'ej`a vu - marking the third straight Olympics in which their star missed out by the tiniest of margins.
In 1980 it was Nadia Comaneci, only 18 and still in peak form four years after her triumph in Montreal, performing so magnificently that even the partisan Moscow crowd seemed ready to concede the gold medal. But in complicated and controversial voting that threw her coach, Bela Karolyi, into a histrionic frenzy, she was edged by the host country's Yelena Davydova. Nadia did win two apparatus finals to emerge as the only double gold medal winner, but that hardly made up for the inequities of the all-around.
Four years later in Los Angeles it was a 17-year-old sprite named Ecaterina Szabo who lost a razor-thin decision to home favorite Mary Lou Retton. Szabo, like Nadia, came back to stake her own claim to top honors, winning three of the four individual apparatus events.
Now this year, incredibly, another Romanian won the most medals (5) and the most gold medals (3) - but not the big one. Silivas, an elfin, 18-year-old crowd-pleaser, appeared to match Shushunova in technical proficiency while outshining her in terms of dynamic performance. So why didn't she get the gold?
Where partisan crowds were factors in Moscow and Los Angeles, the culprit in Seoul was the modern penchant for giving out ``perfect'' 10s at the drop of a hat.
It was in Montreal, for Nadia, that Olympic judges first broke the unwritten rule against awarding such scores. The crowds loved it, and perhaps in itself the change was all right. Maybe the time for an occasional 10 had come. But since then, they have become far too common in both men's and women's events. This year's judges, for example, awarded an incredible 41 ``perfect'' scores, including some for obviously flawed routines.
In the uneven bars, East Germany's Dagmar Kirsten ended an otherwise fine routine with a little jump on her landing. The gymnast herself appeared downcast, and reacted with disbelief when her score was posted - looking as though even she didn't really want such an ``imperfect 10,'' as one commentator described it.
Shushunova, in the same event, threw her arms forward to avoid a fall - prompting a TV announcer to joke that she looked like somebody deciding at the last minute not to dive into the water - but she got a 10, too.
These two judging generosities took place in the apparatus finals, and didn't affect the all-around outcome, but there were problems in the latter, too.
The big mistake here came in the floor exercise - and again was related to the proliferation of perfect scores. Shushunova, who preceded Silivas, did well and deserved good marks. But when she got a 10, it left no margin if her rival should follow with an even better routine - which is exactly what happened.
The Romanian brought the crowd to its feet with a spectacular performance, but all the judges could do was give her the same score. Thus the two gymnasts came out equal - and it didn't matter that one was ``more equal'' than the other.
Unfortunately for Silivas, the same situation didn't prevail in the final event, the vault. Shushunova did better and got a higher score, which gave her the gold.
Clearly it is time for changes in the way gymnasts are scored. Politics and hometown bias may always be with us, but the system itself shouldn't impose additional inequities. The solution is to go back to the idea that you don't give out 10s except in the rarest cases - thus keeping the door open to mark the best gymnast highest in any particular event.