jasonbwatson

August 10, 2016

Let’s Be Fair (Part 2)

Just over four years ago, in a post entitled Let’s Be Fair, I opined about the absurdity of the rules in Olympic gymnastics that allow only two gymnasts per country to advance to the All Around finals’ group of twenty-four, regardless of whether or not a country has more than two competitors score high enough to qualify. The prompt at that time was the exclusion of U.S. gymnast Jordyn Weiber, who finished fourth out of sixty gymnasts but did not advance because two of the three who scored higher than she did were her own U.S. teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. That post is one of my most popular ever written, partially I suspect because of the popularity of the Olympics and the number of people searching for stories about it at the time, but partially as well because of the recognized ridiculousness of the rule.

Here we are four years later and here we are with yet another prime example of the need for a rule change. Interestingly, it again involves Raisman and Douglas, but this time Douglas is the one on the outside looking in as Raisman and phenom Simone Biles took the two U.S. spots for the All Around finals. Douglas finished third. Yep—that means no one else in the entire field scored higher than she did in the qualifying round except for her own two teammates, but twenty-two other gymnasts will advance to the finals instead of Douglas because she happens to compete for the United States. And, just as was the case with Weiber, Douglas eclipsed a total score of more than 60, yet none of the gymnasts who will qualify instead of her did so. Douglas had a 60.131; the fourth place finisher was Rebeca Andrade of Brazil with a 58.732. To anyone unfamiliar with the nuances of gymnastics that may not seem like much, but the point difference of 1.399 is, well, huge. In fact, the gymnast who placed fourth—Andrade—and who finished eighth—Eythora Thorsdottir of the Netherlands—were separated by only 1.166 points, meaning there were five gymnasts squeezed within a point differential smaller than that by which Douglas beat her next closest competitor.

As was the case four years ago, the United States is not the only nation to have gymnasts shorted by this arcane attempt at fairness. Japan had the ninth, twelfth and sixteenth place finishers, meaning Aiko Sugihara (sixteenth) did not advance; Russian gymnasts had the fifth, sixth and twenty-second place scores, meaning Angelina Melnikova (22nd) did not advance; Brazil had the fourth, nineteenth and twenty-third place finishers, leaving out Jade Barbosa (23rd).

Writing on SB Nation, Rodger Sherman accurately sums up the ramifications of this rule, writing “The two-per-country rule will give a country besides the United States an opportunity to win a medal, which is important for the sport’s international popularity. But it comes at the cost of having an Olympic event which doesn’t actually reward the best three competitors.” He goes on to explain that there are similar rules in other sports, but his comparison is not, in fact, accurate. Here is what he says:

There are similar rules in almost every sport at the Olympics. For example, Brazil has the top three women’s beach volleyball teams in the world and swept the podium at last year’s World Championships. But they were allowed to enter only two teams in Rio. Similarly, China has the top four men’s table tennis players in the world and the top three women’s table tennis players in the world, but were only allowed to enter two players in each event.

As I stated, though, that is not actually the same thing. To restrict the number of teams, or even individuals, a country can enter in the Olympics is not unreasonable. After all, there has to be a limitation established somewhere or else the Olympics could easily become an unruly event with even more competitors than the ten thousand plus already participating, resulting in an overall event lasting longer than the current two weeks. But the gymnastics rule restricts the ability of those who have qualified for the Olympics from actually having a chance to win a medal even if they have one of the best scores in the qualifying rounds. The result is a cheapening of the competition. While the rule is intended to give more people a chance—read more countries a chance, primarily out of a desire to expand the popularity of gymnastics in countries where it gets little if any notice—the real impact of the rule is to increase the likelihood of the very best gymnasts winning the medals. Think about it. When professional sports leagues expand, there is a resulting diminishing of the talent in the professional ranks, at least temporarily. If Major League Baseball were to add two teams to the MLB next year that would mean fifty players who would not otherwise have been playing in the majors then would be. Does that give more people a chance to play? Of course. Does it potentially increase the popularity of the sport—at least among the cities that get the expansion teams and the families, communities (possibly even nations) of the players who now get to play? Probably so. It also, though, makes the best players and the best teams likely to be separated even more from the pack because the overall pool has been (pun intended) watered down.

In October 2013 Dwight Normile, writing for International Gymnast Magazine, addressed this problem like this:

The individual all-around used to be the centerpiece of a major championship. Eliminating potential gold medalists, such as [Phillip] Boy and [Jordyn] Wieber, tarnishes that title. Giving Wieber’s spot to the 25th-ranked gymnast doesn’t make much sense, unless that person has a legitimate shot at winning. So the question is, Should the worlds and Olympics be real championships, or are they merely participation sports? (Think kids’ T-ball, where everyone gets a trophy.)

This is the very point I made in Let’s Be Fair. Eventually, the competition will become meaningless because the desire will be to see everyone get recognized somehow—with the result being that all recognition is hollow. The result of that would be that interest in the sport would wane, because no one really wants to put time and effort into competing for something that does not really matter. The very best athletes are not going to pour their time, effort, money, blood, sweat and tears into a sport where their possibility of a meaningful prize is restricted by an arbitrary rule designed to give lesser athletes a chance in the big show whether or not it was deserved.

It has proven to be far more difficult than I could have imagined to find an official list of the twenty-four qualifiers for the individual All Around finals, but based on the results I found listed on rio2016.com for the qualifying round, there are four individuals who will compete in the All Around that would not have had the opportunity to do so if it were not for the two-per-country rule. They are Louise Vanhille of France, Carlotta Ferlito of Italy, Sophie Scheder of Germany and Vanessa Ferrari of Italy. Ferrari is the only one of them that scored higher than Douglas in any of the four areas of competition—vault, uneven bard, balance beam and floor exercise—besting Douglas by a half-point on floor exercise. Ferlitto is the only one of the four not to have at least two scores below 14.0, and she did that narrowly, earning a 14.033 in both bars and floor exercise. Scheder is the only one of the four with any score above 15, earning a 15.433 in bars. Douglas has two scores above 15 and her lowest was a 14.366. Scheder and Ferrari both scores in the 12’s, with Ferrari earning as 12.000 in beam. Douglass beat Vanhille, who had the highest overall score of the four with a 55.765, by 4.366 points.

It is worth noting, by the way, that success does not automatically breed interest. The Romanians have won a team medal in every Olympics since 1976 but this year did not even have a team qualify for the Olympics. Only Catalina Ponor, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, qualified. Now that is not because the Romanians had no one competing, but the fact that the best they were able to put forward was not even good enough to qualify for the competition could reasonably be construed as an indicator that Romania’s best athletes are not necessarily entering gymnastics. Cate Carrejo, writing on Bustle, says “Ponor is one of the last of a dying breed of Romanian gymnasts.” She cites “allegedly lying about age, doping, and a stripped medal” during the 2000s as reasons for the dying reputation of Romanian gymnastics, but she also discusses the country’s shallow bench in the sport. Ponor emerged from retirement specifically to try to help the team qualify, but that obviously did not happen. A Reuters confirmed Carrejo’s comments about the “shallow bench,” saying “a rapidly shrinking talent pool meant that when they were hit by another round of injuries, a lack of top caliber substitutes meant they again failed to make the Olympic cut.”

Back to the issue at hand, though, Gabby Douglas was, as one would expect from her, very professional in her handling of her exclusion from the finals. She said the rule was “fine” and said that she had enjoyed an “amazing ride” as the Olympic All Around champion for four years. Raisman, though—even before Douglas was excluded this year—commented on the 2012 situation excluding Weiber as “just not fair,” “stupid” and “the dumbest thing ever.” And while Raisman has found herself on the qualifying end of the equation in the last two Olympics, she suffered from the two-per-country rule in world competition and also found herself losing out on a bronze medal in 2012 because of the tie-breaker rule in gymnastics (rather than awarding the medal to both athletes). So she knows that of which she speaks. It cannot be easy for her to know that she has stood between a teammate and her chance at an All Around medal in two consecutive Olympic games, as both Weiber and Douglas would have qualified if not for Raisman besting them.

I am not a big fan of Wikipedia, and I make it clear to my students that it is not an acceptable source for research papers or any scholarly writing, but since this is neither I will utilize the site for this point. Wikipedia’s entry for the term “level playing field” says, “In commerce, a level playing field is a concept about fairness, not that each player has an equal chance to succeed, but that they all play by the same set of rules.” That makes perfect sense. No one would suggest that gymnasts—or any other athletes—should be allowed to compete under different rules or with different equipment. In fact, that is exactly why anti-doping rules are in place, to prevent any unfair advantage. But the two-per-country rule is not an example of fairness. Instead, it is patently unfair.

Equal opportunity is another buzz word that is often used in situations when discussions like this are being had, so let’s look at things from that perspective. Borrowing again from Wikipedia, equal opportunity “is a stipulation that all people should be treated similarly, unhampered by artificial barriers or prejudices or preferences, except when particular distinctions can be explicitly justified.” The two-per-country rule is, in fact, an artificial barrier that results in preferences and distinctions that absolutely cannot be explicitly justified. The desire to include more countries in the finals is not a justifiable reason for excluding the third best athlete in the world from having a chance while simultaneously allowing the twenty-eighth just because she competes under a different flag.

This is precisely why—to throw another aside into the mix—affirmative action is not equal opportunity but reverse discrimination. The web site legaldictionary.net defines reverse discrimination this way: “The unfair treatment of members of majority groups, often resulting from preferential policies enacted by the legislature, intended to remedy prior discrimination against members of minority groups.” In this instance (Olympic gymnastics) the U.S. athletes are the majority population and preferential policies instituted by the governing body of international gymnastics competition in an effort to broaden the base of the sport’s popularity are discriminating against Gabby Douglas (and Aiko Sugihara, Angelina Melnikova and Jade Barbosa).

Combined with my previous post on this subject, I have probably now said more than enough about the rules for Olympic gymnastics. In the grand scheme of life—and certainly of eternity—Olympic medals do not matter. But the principle espoused by those who created these rules is one that does matter for life and has very real implications. When some ruling group somewhere—no matter who they are or what position they hold—has the ability and power to, by fiat, state that someone who would, in a truly level playing field, have qualified, has in fact not qualified just because it does not fit their idea of the preferable or ideal scenario, we should all be scared. If that principle starts to go beyond Olympic sports to decisions about employment, health care and, in fact, life, then the consequences start to get exponentially more serious—and personal.

What too few people realize is that that is actually already happening.

July 30, 2012

Let’s Be Fair

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.

February 13, 2012

Training for Godliness

Several years ago I had the opportunity to spend the better part of a day with former U.S. Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller. I remember watching Miller during the 1992 Olympic games and, particularly, the 1996 games in Atlanta when she was part of the group dubbed The Magnificent Seven. Miller is the most highly decorated gymnast in U.S. history, having amassed seven Olympic medals and nine World Championship medals over her career.

The time I spent with Shannon allowed for me to ask plenty of questions, of course, but the thing has probably stuck with me the most from our conversation was the amount of training that she went through. She would be at the gym for workouts each morning before school, then go to school, and then head back to the gym after school. There were many weeks when she was spending the equivalent hours of a full-time job in training in addition to a full load of school work. I remember Shannon told me about the time in 1992 when she dislocated her elbow in a training accident on the bars. She was taken to the hospital, and emergency surgery was done on the elbow–which included a screw being inserted to hold the elbow in place. Shannon told me that when her coach saw her at the hospital he asked how she was doing, and then told her, “You can take tomorrow off.”

I am sure I sounded incredulous when I asked, “He only gave you one day off? How could you do anything?” Well, she told me, she couldn’t do anything with her arms while the elbow healed, but there was still plenty she could do with her lower body. And after one day, she was back in the gym, continuing her training. Within just three months of the accident Shannon took first place in the compulsory portion of the U.S. nationals, and then won the Olympic Trials. Miller then went on to win five medals at the Olympic games in Barcelona, a feat that has only ever been matched among U.S. gymnasts by Mary Lou Retton and Nastia Liukin.

To become a world-class athlete, of course, requires tremendous dedication and commitment. It requires self-discipline. It requires sacrifice. Shannon Miller, and many others who have become Olympic or professional athletes, have worked incredibly hard to train their bodies to do incredible things. In my mind, the balance beam in gymnastics has to be one of the most difficult things anyone does in professional sports. Hitting a baseball is hard–the batter has only a fraction of a second to determine what kind of pitch is being thrown, where it will cross the plate, and whether or not to swing. The fact that a batter is considered successful if he gets a base hit only 30% of the time is evidence of the difficulty involved. But a beam is only 10 centimeters wide, and gymnasts not only maintain their balance while walking on the beam, but they flip, leap, tumble and roll. Beam performances combine elements of dance and gymnastics. And in 1996 Shannon Miller won the gold medal for the beam. Impressive…

As impressive as her accomplishments are, though, and as awed and impressed as I am by her dedication to physical training and practice, the Apostle Paul said that physical exercise has some value, its value pales in comparison to spiritual development and growth in godliness.

“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.” 1 Timothy 4:7-9 (ESV)

Paul compares training for godliness to bodily training because it requires the same things: dedication, commitment, sacrifice and self-discipline. And, just like successful athletes have coaches, God has given each believer a coach in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will guide, prompt and convict as necessary. Like the athlete with her coach, though, the believer must choose whether or not to listen to the Spirit.

Bodily training has very real, but very temporary, rewards. Athletes can do things with their bodies that those who do not train physically cannot do, but eventually age and injury catch up with them. They may still be in better physical shape than their peers, but sooner or later the human body will no longer do the things it once did when it was younger. Training in godliness, however, is eternal value. It is valuable now, because the believer who is growing in godliness is continuing to become more like Christ–a deeper understanding of Scripture, increased wisdom in applying Scripture, and so on. This also has benefit for the life to come, because as the believer grows in godliness he is laying up treasures in heaven. Even as the physical body gives out, and even dies, the spiritual can continue to grow and will eventually graduate to heaven.

Am I suggesting that anyone needs to spend 40 hours per week reading the Bible and praying? No. I’m not saying that would be wrong, necessarily, either, but someone once said–D.L. Moody, I think–that we must not be so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good. So reading my Bible and praying is valuable and important and necessary, but I never put into practice what I am reading I would be like an athlete who practices non-stop but never gets in the game. I believe I can say with certainty that it was knowing that she would compete and could win the prize that motivated Shannon Miller to spend hours and hours in practice and training, not the fact that she just loved training so much. She may well have liked training, but it was a means to an end; it was preparation for the contest. Likewise, reading the Bible and praying and spending time with believers and all of the other things that are necessary parts of spiritual development are valuable, but they are a means–their purpose is to help prepare believers for the contest, the daily spiritual battle. And, like the Olympic gymnast, the believer presses on to win the prize. But it is no material possession; no, it is the prize of hearing God say, “Well done, My good and faithful servant.” It is the reward of living a life that is honoring to God, and points others to Him.

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