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Laramie Movie Scope:
Athletics and art

The Olympics should be about athletics, not art

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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August 11, 2012 -- I ran across an article the other day in the New Yorker, written by Katia Bachko with the provocative title “Why I Wish the Russian Gymnasts Had Won.” Basically, the article was a lament about how the women's gymnastics competition at the Olympics has evolved to the point where it is much more about athletic ability than it is about artful movements to music.

Now, the competition is about how athletically difficult your routine is and how flawlessly you perform it. You don't get a lot of points for dance-like moves. There is still a bit of the old ballet influence in the women's floor routine that is absent from the men's floor routine. The men's floor routine doesn't have any music and the men don't have flap their arms around artistically or toss their heads or dance in the manner of a ballerina. In effect, the women's floor routines are becoming more like the men's routines. There is still rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming, in the summer Olympics and figure skating in the Winter Olympics of course, which are Olympic events heavy on art and ballet-type movements. Some have suggested, rightly I think, that rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming should be dropped from the Olympics.

The fact is, however, that in the women's Olympic floor exercise competition, the artistic element is almost gone. Some, like Judith Mackrell, in a Guardian article and Roslyn Sulcas, in a New York Times article, have suggested that dance has become such a vestigial element in the floor exercise competition it should be gotten rid of altogether. Sulcas writes that men don't have to pretend the floor exercise is effortless, so why should women? She says, “The women, on the other hand, may be doing superhumanly difficult things, but they are supposed, at least notionally, to look pretty and feminine. It’s a deeply sexist notion of female performance. Thirty years ago, an artistic component was a real element in judging women’s gymnastics. Now that it has all but disappeared, why does the pretense remain in place that there’s anything going on except a display (amazing, brilliant, stupefying) of pure prowess?”

While Katia Bachko, and other people responding to these articles expressed a desire to go back to the way things were 30 or 40 years ago, when artistic merit was a major component of judging women's floor exercise, they have infinitely fonder memories of that than I do. That wasn't fun at all, especially for competitors on the west side of the Iron Curtain. Regressing to the old style of judging is a really bad idea. If you want to watch ballet, watch ballet, don't try to turn an athletic competition into a dance contest.

I remember Americans and other competitors from the West getting screwed out of medals in the floor exercise in those days of yore, and even much later, in figure skating, boxing, and in any other sport ruled by subjective judging. That is because the Soviet Union controlled the judges from those Eastern Block countries, which gave them a big edge in any sport where judges determine the outcome of a competition.

When artistic expression was a significant element in judging women's floor exercise, that gave the Eastern Block nations a huge advantage. Judging dance, and other artistic elements in gymnastics, figure skating, or any other competition involving art, is, by nature, subjective. Judges making subjective decisions can also extend that a bit to make arbitrary decisions, leading to abuse of power, corruption and unfair decisions. As a result, certain Olympic sports judged in this manner are repeatedly the subject of everything from complaints of undue influence, favoritism, corruption to outright event-fixing scandals.

Another advantage the Soviet Union had was the narrow way gymnastics was judged, favoring a style of movement pioneered in St. Petersburg called the Vaganova method. The Eastern Block judges favored that style, a style the Eastern Block specializes in, another advantage for them. If an American gymnast started break dancing or moon walking, or using some other dance style than classical ballet, the Eastern Block judges, and perhaps others, would deduct points, even though, theoretically, both dance styles should be judged the same. That is another advantage for the Eastern Block.

Even body shapes influence judging, as Bachko writes: “When coaches put too much emphasis on strength training, athletes end up with bulky shoulder muscles which compromise the graceful, elevated carriage of the head, which is typical among Carly Patterson, Jordyn Wieber, and other American gymnasts. Pay attention to the way the head position changes as the torso moves. Graceful, fluid neck movement creates dynamic, pleasing movement; a tight upper body gives the impression of tension.” So, points can be deducted if a gymnast is too strong? This is just another example of style being more important than substance in Eastern Block-style judging. I prefer it the other way around. Points should be awarded by the gymnastic ability to perform acrobatic routines and it should not be affected by body shape. Ballerinas are screened according to body shape, gymnastics should be screened by ability.

Take a purely athletic competition, say the 200-meter dash. There are judges, but they seldom figure into the event. The person who crosses the finish line first wins the race, there is nothing subjective about that. It is an entirely objective result. The judges are there to prevent cheating, like using drugs, starting too soon, cutting other runners off, running out of your lane, etc. Again, these are objective standards, for the most part. The judges do not have the power to determine the winner of the race, unless there is cheating, and that has to be proven, not imagined. Even in this kind of event, there are judging abuses, but not as many.

I think the Olympics should be primarily about athletic competition which can be judged more objectively, not about artistic movement and other things which can only be judged subjectively. I don't like any competition where you have to wait for a panel of judges to let you know who won. That is a major flaw in the sport of boxing. Until a better, more objective, method of judging boxing matches is invented, the stink of scandal will continue to cling to this sport. The 2012 summer Olympics were rocked by nasty money-for-medals boxing scandals. This is nothing new, boxing scandals have been going on in the Olympics (and in every arena of this sport) for many years. This is just another reason to stay away from Olympic events that are judged subjectively. This can lead to all manner of corruption, abuses and unfair results.

The evolution of women's gymnastics from an art to an athletic competition is a good one. Athletic competition lends itself more easily to objective judging. Either you can do a double back flip, or you can't. Either you stick the landing, or you don't. Either you stay on the mat, or you step off it and get a deduction. The more athletic the competition is, the better the chances for fair judging. Fair judging is hard enough to come by as it is. Human error, money, nationalism, the cheering of the crowd and other factors combine to put a lot of psychological pressure on judges to skew the outcomes of Olympic competitions consciously or unconsciously. Asking judges to make subjective judgements objectively, and at the same time giving them almost total power to determine the winners and losers of an event is just asking for trouble.

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Copyright © 2012 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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