Commentary

Degree of difficulty? Kokas? We're confused ...

Updated: August 15, 2008, 1:58 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- I went to the men's gymnastics all-around on Thursday and found myself amazed, astounded and scratching my head. Not by the performances, which were extraordinary, but by the scoring system, which is baffling.

In the old days, gymnastics scoring was simple. You got a 10 if your routine was absolutely, undeniably, indisputably, 100 percent, bona fide flawless, or if you were a 15-year-old girl from the Soviet Bloc. But no longer. The scoring system has been changed and I was completely lost watching the competition.

"The novice fan is going to tune in and see the 15s and 16s and they'll say, 'What's going on? I thought that 10 was the maximum,'" U.S. coach Miles Avery said. "I'm sad that scoring system went away, but we have to move on and I think this change is good."

[+] EnlargeYang Wei
Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty ImagesYang Wei's routines are a thing of wonder, but scoring those routines give our scribe a headache.

Just so long as you can figure it out, which I now can (I think), after Avery explained it to me:

"You take your 10 best elements and every element has a value. If you do an E, that's five-tenths. You do an F, that's six-tenths. You do something that's an A, and that's one-tenth. You add all those tenths up and most people will get like, four points of difficulty. Add that to your element groups, and you have 2.5 more, then you have 10 points of execution and that person starts at a 16.5, say, on the rings. Four points of difficulty, 2.5 of element groups and 10 points for execution. So from that 10.0, judges will take deductions, say, 1.2, and they'll only have 8.8 for execution and they'll have 6.5 for difficulty."

Got all that?

Reporters like to pretend we're experts on the event we're covering -- no one can get more outraged by an athlete's "disappointing" performance than a columnist who knows virtually nothing about the sport aside from where the press buffet is located -- but the poorly kept secret is, with dozens of sports and hundreds of events at the Olympics, we're often lucky if we can figure out who won before the medals are awarded and the national anthem is played.

Sometimes not even the scoreboards help.

A friend was photographing the judo competition the other day and was stunned when he looked at the scoreboard and saw that a competitor who was ahead 1-0 was suddenly behind 100-1 because of one move. One single move and he went from leading 1-0 to trailing 100-1. Which was nothing. He saw a woman trailing 1,000-1, a score I don't think even the Dolphins lost by. When my friend told me about this, we imagined what it would be like if our mainstream sports had similar scoring systems. Say, if in baseball, inside-the-park home runs were worth 100 runs due to degree of difficulty. Not only would Ichiro have a chance to lead the league in RBIs, think what one inside-the-park home run could do to a pitcher's ERA.

As it turns out, however, he was just misreading the scoreboard. I called Nicole Jomantas with U.S. Judo and she explained that the scoreboard was actually showing tallies for the individual scoring groups. It's a bit like looking at a baseball scoreboard that reads:

MIN 100 002 220
SEA 310 001 201

And assuming the Mariners beat the Twins by nearly 200 million runs.

Jomantas went on to explain the scoring system and she was very nice and patient about it, but frankly, my head was swimming when she talked about scoring by yukos, kokas and waza-aris. Although I think I am fairly clear on how you can win by strangling your opponent until he or she taps out (Seriously. Strangling. I need to go see this sport.)

It's not just the obscure sports that can be confusing. I was covering the U.S. men's volleyball match against Venezuela the other day when the Americans won the first two sets only to lose the next two and set up a deciding fifth set. When the U.S. led 14-10 in that fifth set and scored another point, I looked down to scribble myself a note. Imagine my surprise when I looked up to see the U.S. men celebrating and leaving the floor. The match was over! Apparently, volleyball sets go to 15 only in the fifth set.

I probably should have known that, but I was by no means the only reporter taken by surprise. Besides, it just seems really messed up to me. Why should the deciding game be shorter than the others? I mean, what if the seventh game of the World Series went only six innings? Or the Super Bowl only three quarters?

At least I have an advantage as an American over other reporters because I know the rules to the most baffling of all sports -- baseball. When I covered the 2004 Olympics, the most frequent question I heard in the stands was "How can it be a strike if the batter doesn't swing?"

You think you could rely on track and field to be as simple as it gets. Run faster, jump higher or throw something farther than everyone else and you win. But then you come to the decathlon. Does anyone understand how that point system works? The lowest finisher in Athens four years ago scored 3,350 fewer points than the gold medalist. Three thousand, three hundred and 50 points! What, did the gold medalist land the pinball in the stripper's cleavage for a double-points bonus?

I looked up the decathlon scoring system on Wikipedia, but I think I was directed to a calculus Web site instead:

"Specifically, the regressive nature of Jörbeck's tables for the field events seemed to obviate the importance of elite performances in those events; decathletes' field-event performances had improved to the point where further score increments were practically negligible. Moreover, besides sapping decathletes' motivation to improve in field events, the tables also gave an unfair advantage to competitors in the track events - both because those tables were still progressive. ..."

Perhaps that is why I have never covered the decathlon.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com