Like millions of others, I have been watching a lot of Olympic events since Friday’s opening ceremony. And last night, like many others, I empathized with US gymnast Jordyn Wieber as she realized that she will not be going to the All Around competition because of a bizarre rule which restricts qualifiers for the finals to not more than two per country.
Wieber is the reigning world champion, and was a favorite for medal contention at these Olympic games. Yet, due to the strength of the US women’s gymnastics team, she was edged out by teammates Alexandra Raisman and Gabby Douglas for one of the two finalist positions from the US.
(Completely as an aside, I watched all of the floor routines by the US gymnasts last night, and, though certainly not a qualified or trained observer of gymnastics competition, I fail to see how, in a sport where tenths and hundredths of points really matter, Raisman’s floor exercises earned a score of .659 points higher than Weiber’s… But like I said, that’s not the point).
In reality, what the IOC rule does is attempt to create a level of “fairness” that pure competition may not–and last night, did not–create on its own. Apparently the powers that be feel that it is important to ensure that as many countries as possible are represented in the finals. The relevant portion of the rule reads, “The best 24 individual gymnasts (maximum two from each country) go through to the Individual All-Around final, where gymnasts compete on all apparatus.” Shortly thereafter, it continues, “Each apparatus is judged for difficulty and execution, with the highest scoring athlete the winner.”
The problem is–or should be–clearly evident in the very wording of this rule. First, it contradicts itself by saying that the “best 24 individual gymnasts” will go on to the AA finals, but then clarifies that by restricting it to not more than two per country. Therefore, it is inaccurate to say that the best 24 will go on, as last night’s competition clearly revealed. The rule then contradicts itself again by saying that the highest scoring athlete is the winner, because Jordyn Wieber scored higher than all but three other athletes in the qualifying round, but I am quite certain she does not feel like she won…because she did not. Though her scores qualified her for the AA finals, the bizarre attempt at leveling the playing field will deny her that opportunity.
According to the Olympics web site (london2012.com) there were 60 competitors in the All Around Individual qualifying round. Jordyn Wieber scored higher than 56 of them. Not only that, she was one of only four gymnasts to achieve a total score higher than 60. Yet, because two of the other three that scored above 60 are Wieber’s teammates from USA, Wieber will not advance to the finals.
I need to point out, as well, that Wieber is not the only gymnast who will suffer from this two-per-county limit. The combination of that facts that she is from the USA, is the reigning world champion, and scored so high will mean that she gets the majority of the attention, but Russia’s Anastasia Grishina (12th overall), Great Britain’s Jennifer Pinches (21st overall) and China’s Jinnan Yao (22nd overall) also scored in the top 24 but will not make the finals because they were the third-highest finishers from their respective countries. Perhaps adding insult to injury, Wieber is not even one of the four reserves for final competition because of the two-per-country rule.
Now, I certainly have no grudge or ill-will toward France’s Aurelie Malaussena, Poland’s Marta Pihan-Kulesza, Japan’s Rie Tanaka, or Australia’s Ashleigh Brennan, but these gymnasts–at least in last night’s competition–were not among “the best 24 individual gymnasts.” Yet they will be in the AA finals.
I think I have sufficiently set the stage and established that I think this particular IOC rule is absurd. However, this entire scenario serves only to highlight the impact of any attempts to create artificial “fairness.” Every attempt to force fairness at the expense of the outcomes of real competition results in some level of unfairness, whether in athletics, academics or economics.
There are plenty of people who argue for forced fairness in economics, through higher levels of taxation on higher earners in order to redistribute the wealth “more fairly.” There are those who argue that there should be only a certain percentage of students in any class who receive A’s, a certain percentage who receive B’s, the highest percentage who receive C’s, and so on. Such “forced fairness” is anything but. Competition–unfettered, uninterrupted, unadjusted, and completely clean and legal–will, by itself, produce the fairest results every time. No assistance or interference is needed. The problem is, those who aren’t among the “winners” start to cry about it not being fair, and then someone gets the brilliant idea to try to make it fair artificially.
I am a baseball fan, and an Orioles fan specifically. Thus, I am just about required to dislike the Yankees and Red Sox. However, I would never think of suggesting that the Yankees and Red Sox have won the division, the pennant, and/or the World Series enough recently and the Orioles deserve their turn to win. That would be ridiculous! The Orioles only deserve to win if and when they can field the best team and thereby earn the title(s). No true competitor would want a title that came to them just because it was their turn. Such victory would seem hollow…fake. And that’s because that is exactly what it would be.
The fact is, though, the limitation of qualifiers to only two per country is but the beginning of a slide down a slippery slope of forced “fairness.” See, if–to be fair–we have to make sure that no country has more than two competitors in the final 24, it is only a matter of time before someone decides that still is not fair. What if, even with that restriction, there are still countries that do not make it into the finals year after year? After all, if my quick perusal of the competitor’s national flags is correct, Greece, Brazil, Croatia, Chile, Israel and others will not have a competitor in the AA finals. How many years can that be allowed to happen before we need to restrict the finals to one competitor per country so that more countries get to be included? But wait, that might not be far enough either, eventually. After all, there are some countries that have never won an Olympic medal in any event, ever. Surely we cannot allow such inequality. Perhaps there should be a rule created that will allow for medals to be more evenly distributed.
I hope you can see where I am going. Interference of any kind with competition serves only to destroy competition. Attempts at creating equality of opportunity (i.e., no more than two finalists per country) eventually leads to attempts to create equality of results. And while Jordyn Wieber and the Olympic gymnastics competition has served as a prime example of the problem, it is a problem that is much more prevalent, much more far-reaching, and, indeed, much more serious than Olympic competition. So, let’s be fair, and stop meddling with the outcomes.