After seeing the Final Five gymnastics squad emerge victorious from the Olympics in Rio, the possibility that the judging needs to undergo a reform might seem to be less of a priority – at least to non-gymnastics-savvy Americans. But within the sport, and even at the lower levels, there are plenty who believe change needs to be made.
Meet the change: a three-dimensional replay system currently under development in Tokyo. And at the moment, it has the approval of International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) president, Bruno Grandi.
Wait, say what? Computerized judging? Of gymnastics?
Well, not entirely. But the new technology would enable judges to get fixed difficulty scores based on gymnasts’ actual execution of specific moves – and, say proponents, would help eliminate any idea the judging was based on any personal or political favoritism.
Of course, opponents say, that boils the sport down more to mathematics than to the artistry that must also be present.
According to an article in Inside The Games, the irony of the situation is that Grandi himself is well aware of the shift in the balance caused by a measure he deemed vital. After the Rio 2016 Games, for instance, he said that he preferred the “more artistic” floor performance of Olympic silver medallist Aly Raisman to the “acrobatics” of her gold-medal winning US teammate Simone Biles.
So for a world governing body on the brink of electing only its ninth President since establishment in 1881, one of the main challenges remains to establish the ideal balance in this area.
And, notes the article, it may well be that there is no perfect answer. Judging – at least to a certain extent, will always reflect the individual judge’s opinion. After the successive disputes in the 2004 Olympic gymnastics competition Evgeny Marchenko, coach of the US winner of the 2004 all-round title, Carly Patterson, reflected: “Because it is a subjective sport, that will always be a problem. There is always room for improvement. More educated judges and more independent judges would probably be helpful. But I think the problem will always be there.”
But under the new computerized system, a program would use 3-D laser sensors to track each gymnasts’ movements. It would also take into account their joint positions during the event, as well as their technique.
A Fujitsu press release issued in May this year detailed its joint project with the Japanese Gymnastics Federation, explaining: “At present, motion capture technology is widely used to analyze human movements, but this technology is not practical in actual competitions as it requires the placement of multiple markers, thereby burdening the gymnast. Now, by capturing human movements in three dimensions with the high precision offered by 3D laser sensors, and using the 3D data this generates to recognize an athlete's joint position and the techniques performed, the researchers seek to derive the numerical data needed to judge competitions, and create technology that supports judges' scoring decisions.”
After accepting an offer from the Japanese governing body last November to inspect the “automatic gymnastics evaluation device” being developed by Fujitsu, Grandi (who has come to the end of his term as FIG president) said: “I firmly believe gymnastics will develop towards this scientific approach, which will lead to an improved study of body movements. This will come to represent the system of technical evaluation related to ‘difficulty’ and its identification, making it possible to accurately determine the real value of all routines, simple or complex. Now, by capturing human movements in three dimensions with the high precision offered by 3D laser sensors, and using the 3D data this generates to recognize an athlete's joint position and the techniques performed, the researchers seek to derive the numerical data needed to judge competitions, and create technology that supports judges' scoring decisions.”
If adopted, it may take time for the system to filter down to the local level, and may involve significant investments on the part of those involved in judging at the regional, state or even city or county levels. Of course, if national governing bodies buy into the system, the cost may come down – and having discounts available through the NBG would encourage more local organizing committees to get on board.
There is no doubt that there is a growing dissatisfaction with the judging of gymnastics events; even at the test event for the most recent Games in April, four judges were sanctioned by FIG for questionable judgments; in fact, a number of judges have been sanctioned by FIG for controversies with their scoring over the past few months.