When it comes to Olympic gymnastics, perfection is a thing of the past.
There was a time when a gymnast’s best score could be a 10.0, although the number was viewed as unattainable — especially on the Olympic stage. Who could achieve a perfect score under such pressure?
The answer: Romania’s Nadia Comaneci at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. She not only earned the first perfect 10, but six more.
The perfect score endures in collegiate competition, but lives no longer on the world stage thanks to the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG). And American superstar Simone Biles is paying the price.
As of 2006, gymnasts in international competitions receive two scores: one for difficulty and one for execution, with the two then added. The last set of 10s were awarded in 1992.
But the FIG’s various changes to the code of points (which face revision after every Olympic cycle) continues to create a public backlash over its scoring system.
Where the FIG once applauded and heralded revolutionaries of the sport, they’ve now coded themselves into a foam block pit. A really confusing foam block pit. And if Olympic officials don’t figure it out, they’re doomed to continually fail Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, and anyone who comes after her.
There’s a reason some technical skills in the sport have such unique names. The Bhardwaj on uneven bars, named for gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj. The Liukin on balance beam, named for Nastia Liukin. The Memmel on floor exercise, named for Chellsie Memmel. All of these specialty skills represent tricks these gymnasts did for the first time on the biggest stage (Olympics or World Championships).
Each new trick receives a letter valuation (A is lowest, J is highest) assigned by the Women’s Technical Committee, which takes into account “the risk, the safety of the gymnasts and the technical direction of the discipline.” Skills need to be valued at C or higher in order to be added to the code.
Biles — who will make her first appearance at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday as the qualifying rounds begin — boasts an outrageous four skills named after her, with another possibly on the way.
The four-time gold-medal winner is likely to unveil what will probably be called the Biles II on vault in Tokyo, a Yurchenko double pike. Biles already debuted the stunning vault back in May at the U.S. Classic. She executed it perfectly in practice, but under the bright lights of the competition, she over-rotated her body a little too much and tweaked her ankles on the landing.
Still, given the difficulty of the element — she is the only one daring and brave enough to even practice it — Biles herself seemed shocked that she pulled it off.
“I’m sorry but I can’t believe I completed a double pike on vault,” she tweeted after the competition. And yet ... it was awarded a difficulty score of 6.6. She and her coach were expecting at least a 6.8 (Difficulty scores — or D scores — are in theory uncapped).
“They’re both too low and they even know it,” Biles told the New York Times of her newest vault value and the total of her other namesake vault. “But they don’t want the field to be too far apart. And that’s just something that’s on them. That’s not on me. They had an open-ended code of points and now they’re mad that people are too far ahead and excelling.”
For the record, a standard Yurchenko, at one time the go-to vault for women gymnasts, was valued at 5.50 (2006-08 per The Balance Beam Situation). The existing Biles on vault has previously been valued at 6.4. And the women’s national team coordinator Tom Forster also said the valuation given to the existing Biles by the FIG wasn’t “consistent with what they’ve done with other vault values.”
The change to the scoring system was in an effort to move away from continuously scoring 10s, eliminate biased judging and usher in a new era of the sport. But in truth the code of points has made little sense to the athletes competing, much less to viewers who tune in only during the Olympics.
The FIG used to encourage ingenuity and rewarded difficult skills for what they were — difficult. They now claim the changes are a safety issue: “there are many examples in the Code where decisions have been made to protect the gymnasts and preserve the direction of the discipline.”
Biles isn’t willy nilly throwing out stunts for giggles — OK, maybe a little. She’s an entirely new breed of gymnast. Coaches and experts have attributed her unique size, stature, muscle attention and mental focus as reasons why only she can perform the skills named after her.
Still, if devaluing her skills to keep others from attempting them is the point, then there was no point in moving away from the perfect 10. And, even more nefarious, if the FIG is simply trying to level the playing field as Biles charged then they truly have lost sight of the very premise of sporting competitions: to be the very best that ever was.
Biles is exactly the athlete the FIG should have prayed for. Now that she’s here, they’ve somehow codified her genius by an old train of thought.
Biles isn’t going anywhere. She’s a wildfire not meant to be contained or constrained by a code of points that requires experts to decipher. She’ll keep doing her gravity-defying, jaw-dropping skills because she can (her words, not mine). And others like her will emerge.
And if the International Gymnastics Federation were smart, they’d keep up.