Athletic prowess, fallible judging

Fans and athletes give Olympic judges low marks.

With astonishing speed, the early harmony of the Games has been nearly lost beneath the screech of one judging scandal after another. In events ranging from fencing to gymnastics, an increasing number of medals have been followed not by applause, but by a raft of complaints, excuses, protests, and appeals.

In these sports, which leave the final word in the hands of human discretion, second-guessing has always been as much a part of the program as the thrust and parry or the balance beam. But following on the heels of the Salt Lake Games, which were essentially brought to a halt by a judging scandal in the pairs figure skating, the long string of legal actions here threatens to open wide the door to a new and more contentious era in Olympic sports.

"Turning a sports venue into an arena for litigiousness is demoralizing," says John Hoberman, an Olympic historian at the University of Texas in Austin. "It erodes the meaning of what the Games are supposed to be."

Some of the protests have fit a familiar mold, with athletes claiming bias or even collusion among judges. On Monday, the Bulgarian gymnastics team appealed the result of the men's rings final, claiming that hometown gymnast Dimosthenis Tampakos was unfairly given the gold.

But amid these commonplace complaints have been several extraordinary events:

• The equestrian teams from France, Britain, and the United States appealed the result of the three-day team event, claiming that a member of the German gold-medal winning team had made a mistake at the start line. At the medal ceremony, French riders even turned their backs to the Germans. Then, in a dizzying flurry of legal action and reaction, the Germans at first lost the gold, and then won it back when officials claimed the timer had erred. A final appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland surprisingly overturned the result again, pushing Germany into fourth.

• In team foil, the international fencing federation essentially admitted that the referee had wrongly given Italy six points in its final with China. Although the result stood, the referee was banned for two years.

• Perhaps the most remarkable display, however, came Monday night when the hoots and yells of enraged fans successfully persuaded two gymnastics judges to raise their marks for Alexei Nemov in his horizontal bar routine. He still fell short of a medal, and the Russian team said it would lodge a protest with the International Olympic Committee over the judging of the entire gymnastics competition.

Many Americans are already familiar with the disqualification and then reinstatement of swimmer Aaron Peirsol when a judge apparently filed a confusing report. And the error by several judges in the men's gymnastics all-around competition - wrongly deducting 0.1 points from a Korean and allowing American Paul Hamm to pip him for the gold - has generated as much buzz as any athletic event.

Of course, this is not the first major brush with judging error in the Olympics - or perhaps even the worst. Yet the frequency of the problems here, combined with the obviousness of the mistakes, has led to a particularly vehement response.

"It is unusual in its intensity," says Jeffrey Segrave, an Olympic historian at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "There are always differences of opinion. This just seems to be such an egregious example that it is quite remarkable."

It is a difficult situation, all admit. Clearly, in at least some of these cases, athletes have been penalized by judging errors. Yet the solution is, in many cases, no less problematic. In addition to encouraging the competitors in any controversial event to begin a ream of appeals, such actions also risk adding another layer of injustice. For example, some commentators have noted that the judges in the men's all-around also missed a mistake by the Korean gymnast that should have been a 0.2 point deduction.

"What's the appropriate remedy? You can't really say, 'Redo the event,' " says Matt Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute in Milwaukee.

The best result, say some, would be if these governing bodies for each sport got their act together. Just as the skating scandal in Salt Lake brought reform, these embarrassments should bring changes, they say. "If the way they judge things calls the entire competition into disrepute or confusion, then clearly pressure will be put on them to change the rules to be much clearer about the way they do things," says Paul Haagen, a professor at the Duke University School of Law in Durham, N.C. "I suspect a lot of pressure [will be put] on [the international gymnastics federation] as a result."

Sara B. Miller contributed to this report.

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