Not all routines are created equal: A look at gymnastics scoring

By Elizabeth Grimsley
Grady Sports Bureau

A lone gymnast dressed in red and black stands at the end of the vault runway. The University of Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum is bursting with screaming gymnastics fans of all ages.

The head judge raises a shamrock green flag to signal the gymnast 80 feet away that he’s ready. She approaches the vault table and flies through the air, sticking the landing.

Ten thousand fans chant “10! 10! 10!” The score flashes — 9.85. The crowd is silent.

Gymnastics judging is subjective. It’s confusing for even the most diehard enthusiasts let alone general fans. To an everyday supporter, what looks to be a perfect routine should get a perfect score.

“It’s difficult to watch as a spectator to see a routine and it’s clean and only gets a 9.85 or a 9.8,” NCAA judge Dana Kling said.

Fans from as far as Michigan and New Jersey will flock to Athens today for an NCAA regional meet, looking for an exciting competition and not three hours of confusion. With four judges on each event instead of the usual two, scores will be even more strict than usual.

“I’m no stranger to the ups and downs of having to endure the brutal nuances of scoring systems,” longtime gymnastics fan and former college gymnast Evan Heiter said. “The NCAA scoring system embraces the beloved 10.0 of yesteryear, but still, still causes chaos in my mind from time to time.”

Sometimes even the gymnasts may not agree with a particular score. However, they understand each judge has been trained to look for “nit-picky details” and is qualified for the task.

“If they saw it, then it was there,” junior Gym Dog Chelsea Davis said. “We’re striving to get that 10, so we want the fans to keep pushing and be disappointed with a 9.9 because that only makes us better.”

There is much more that goes into a final score than whether it looked perfect. Every women’s collegiate gymnastics routine starts from a 9.5, which is the start value. To get the start value up to a 10.0, each gymnast must perform difficult skills or connect skills in a row to earn bonus 10ths.

While judging a routine, judges take deductions for any execution errors seen by the panel of judges at the meet. Whether it’s a hop on the landing that costs a gymnast 1/10th or a fall from the equipment that costs half a point, it all gets taken away from the gymnast’s start value to calculate the final score.

“They think it’s worth a 10,” Kling said. “But not all (vaults) are created equal. I look very hard as to where their feet are clearing the (vault table), looking for height.

“If fans see a hop, they see a hop. Well I see a hop, and I also think something else happened to make that hop. So you know there was a reason they couldn’t land appropriately and that also should get deduced.”

While one routine is clearly more exciting than another, they both still start from a 10.0 and they both still have the potential of earning the same score if done perfectly.

“Some routines are deserving of 10s even though they display errors, however minor,” Heiter said. “Nadia Comaneci’s historic perfect routine ended with a [tiny] hop on the landing of her dismount. However, the judges had no other choice but to reward her display of difficulty with anything less than perfection.”

The intricacies of the scoring system, or the code of points, are what makes it so subjective. Just as coaches has specific things they look for, judges have things they see more easily than others.

“The longer they judge, the more detailed their eye is,” Georgia head coach Danna Durante said. “For me, it’s feet, hands and knees. Some judges may (pay more attention to) flexed feet where others may see amplitude or distance. We have certain requirements, but within that, how does that stack up against the other team you’re competing against?”

Every NCAA judge goes through a minimum of four years of training, starting with the junior Olympic levels and working their way up.

After that, most but not all collegiate judges continue training to be a nationally rated official, which requires two quadrenniums — or two four-year Olympic cycles — to complete.

Starting at level one, judges work their way up to level 10 all while completing clinics and taking both written and visual tests to ensure they are prepared.

Not only do judges have to try to forget past routines, they have to block out up to 15,000 screaming fans demanding perfection.

“You try to judge in a bubble,” Kling said. “And in meets where there are anywhere from nine to 13,000 people screaming, it’s difficult. I don’t think you have to leave room. I try, as a judge, to keep an open mind and think that [first] vault could be the best one.”

It’s more a matter of having no deductions rather than being perfect.

“What do you do when you see a skill that you can tell was not on, but on beam that girl just moved right on out of it (without wobbling)?” Kling said. “What about the girl that does it and is right on and moves right out of it? That’s where it’s not perfect, it’s a deductionless.”

If one judge evaluates a routine and says it’s perfect while another deems it a 9.85, it’s a difference of views and not a mistake, Kling said.

“If you’re sitting on one side of the beam, some errors look very different than on the other side,” Kling said. “Floor angles can be very different. If someone’s tumbling right at you then you can see the bent arm on the back handspring.”

Overall, though, Kling said he believes everything works out and the correct team comes out on top even after all discrepancies and confusion is set aside.

“We work within the system we’re given, and we try our best,” Kling said. “Usually once everything settles, no matter what the fact, the most important thing is we’re [ranking] these teams and gymnasts appropriately.”

The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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