Gabby Douglas and the genius of Olympic ignorance

Gabby Douglas appeared to lose a chance at another medal by making a mistake on the uneven bars at the London Olympics Monday, but that's not really what happened.

Mike Blake/REUTERS
Gabrielle Douglas competes in the women's gymnastics uneven bars final in the North Greenwich Arena during the London 2012 Olympic Games Monday.

Gabrielle Douglas stood in front of the uneven bars Monday, took a deep breath, and jumped. With the hush of anticipation settled over the arena, seemingly the entire competition rested in the two clutching hands of that tiny girl.

All the other girls in the uneven bars competition had finished, and now the winner of individual all-around had a chance to make her mark on these Olympics even more indelible with a third gold medal. As drama, it was gripping stuff. 

It was also almost a complete lie. 

Douglas did not lose a chance at a winning another medal because she made a mistake during her routine. The fact is, even before she leapt onto the uneven bars, she had virtually no chance of winning any medal, much less gold. But that is the genius of the Olympics. From gymnastics to judo, virtually no one apart from the judges and a few blogging geeks in the stands has any idea what's going on.

Do we know what right of way is in fencing? Would we know how to perform an ippon upon our next-door neighbor if asked? Do we know what a D score is?

No, but human spectacle and drama of the Olympics is compelling enough that we don't need to know. We watch and are amazed simply because what is happening before us is amazing. Except when it isn't. Just don't expect anyone to tell you that.

For the Olympics, some of the allure is almost certainly in the ignorance. Otherwise, how would we ever have a good judging scandal?

On Monday, the numbers of gymnastics' judging system had consigned Douglas's uneven bar routine to irrelevance (at least, from a medal perspective) before she even began. But it would have taken a congressional investigation to find that out. 

The reason: Douglas's routine was easier than those of all of her major competitors. Put simply, the girls already in gold, silver, and bronze position had done routines that were harder than Douglas's, and they had done them well enough that the chances of Douglas making up the ground were minuscule.

This is D score – a routine's degree of difficulty. Each element that a gymnast performs has a certain value, its score rising with difficulty. The three girls in medal positions had D scores of 7.0, 7.1, and 7.0, respectively. Douglas's routine had a D score of 6.6. She was starting in a 0.5 point hole.

Yes, she could have made that up in her execution, which is a score that starts at 10 and shrinks with every mistake made. This is E score and it is added to the D score for the final mark. The top E score in the competition to that point was by the first-place Russian, Aliya Mustafina, whose routine was lovely. She got a 9.133. 

While judges often save the best E scores for the last competitors, so they have space to reward a truly exceptional performance, Douglas would have needed to score a 9.316 for bronze. For gold, she would have needed an astounding 9.533. 

Already, Douglas has performed three times in London on the uneven bars – in the qualification round, the team event, and the all-around. Her E scores: 8.733, 8.700, and 9.133, respectively. If she had matched her best performance on the uneven bars, the 9.133 from the all-around, she would have finished fifth Monday.   

Where's the drama in that?

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(The video below shows how Douglas's uneven bars D score is built, point by point.) 

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