Photo by Grace Chiu

But First, Judging in General…

In 2011, former FIG President Bruno Grandi called the Code of Points a time bomb. “Originally created to serve the development of our sport, the Code has mutated into a time bomb that we are wholly unable to contain,” he said.

He was right. But perhaps the problem is actually not in the Code itself. The problem is the way in which the technical committee and the judges evaluate, apply, and well, judge, the Code. A decision by the FIG’s Women’s Technical Committee to give a lower-than-expected rating of “H” to Simone Biles’ double-double beam dismount started—or perhaps reignited in epic proportions—a fierce discussion in the gymnastics community (and the general public) about scoring in gymnastics in general (more on that in a second!). It’s really a discussion not only about this specific decision, but judging as a whole.

For years, fans, officials, gymnasts and coaches have bemoaned what many perceive to be diminishing artistry in Artistic Gymnastics. And we agree. The artistic side of the sport does indeed seem to be diminishing. An article in FIG’s World of Gymnastics in June of 2015—“The Artistry Question”—stated: “The open-ended code of points, however, has made it more rewarding for gymnasts to emphasise Difficulty, at the expense of Execution and Artistry, detractors moan, resulting in routines largely devoid of Artistic merit.” 

Many blame the Code, but let’s break it down.

When the open-ended code was created, it created two totally separate “buckets” of judging.

D-Score: The D-score is specifically to evaluate difficulty of skills. Each skill is given a value and the skills and connections are added together to develop the D score. Many routines today typically have a D-value between 4-6 points.

E-Score: The E-score has a potential of up to 10 points, with deductions taken from that base. Execution for form, body positions, and landings, and falls are part of this set of marks, as is composition and artistry.

So think about that. In theory, judges have 10 points that could be worked with to properly reward (or penalize) the artistry (or lack thereof), execution, style and overall quality of a routine. Ten points. But, because they use such a narrow range within that ten points, they aren’t really allowing for true separation of outstanding routines from mediocre routines in terms of artistic quality. There are so many floor routines that are just poses. No true dance, no true audience engagement, no true performance quality or musicality, but the judges don’t apply enough of a difference in the E-score to make that much of a difference. It’s the same on beam. In qualification, if you look at the top 62 scoring routines (30% of the routines), the E-scores only spanned a range of 7.0 to 8.3. Think about that. A total range of only 1.3 points in variation in 62 routines. When judges have 10 points of E. So, it’s coming down to tenth deductions on execution. Artistry really matters little. In reality, the quality of the artistic presentation and style in those 62 routines varied GREATLY.

Bottom line: The sport can talk all it wants about bringing back artistry. But until the judges truly reward this aspect of the sport, gymnasts will naturally focus on ramping up the D side versus polishing the E side.

And now, back to Simone and the beam controversy….

Simone Biles is the first woman to ever compete the double-twisting, double-tuck beam dismount. So, it was submitted to the FIG Women’s Technical Committee for evaluation here (for what it will be valued at in the Code of Points for this quad).

The Women’s Technical Committee evaluated it and gave it only an “H” rating, surprisingly lower than what most expected. At the recent U.S. Championships, it was assigned a much higher value of J. Biles, her coaches, USA Gymnastics, and countless others throughout the gymnastics community worldwide were shocked. And people did not hold back in sharing their opinions.

She’s the only woman in the world competing this skill. It’s never been done before. That speaks volumes to the level of difficulty and the corresponding rating it should earn. After all, isn’t this what the D-score was designed for when the Code was created??? To evaluate and award based on difficulty.

The Women’s Technical Committee offered the following explanation after the gymnastics community was outraged: “In assigning values to the new elements, the WTC takes into consideration many different aspects; the risk, the safety of the gymnasts and the technical direction of the discipline. The direction of the FIG for the past two Olympic cycles has been to encourage the perfect execution and beautiful artistic performance, while continuing the development of the skills. With this in mind, the WTC has assigned a ‘reasonable’ difficulty value to the dismount, reflecting on these many aspects. There is added risk in landing of double saltos for beam dismounts (with/without twists), including a potential landing on the neck. Reinforcing, there are many examples in the Code where decisions have been made to protect the gymnasts and preserve the direction of the discipline.”

Uhm, ok. Let’s break this down.

Point 1. They reference “perfect execution” in this statement that is in response to evaluating something has nothing to do with execution (there’s a whole other side of the Code for that, as we just covered). The D value is about difficulty. Wasn’t that the whole point of a Code that separates D—Difficulty and E—Execution?

Point 2. The risk and the safety of a gymnast. If they have concerns that this isn’t a safe skill, why would they even allow it then? There are skills that are banned if deemed unsafe. They don’t want to encourage someone to try this skill, so they are going to give it a lower value? We don’t understand this line of thinking or its rationale. At all. The D-score was created in an open-ended code to evaluate and reward difficulty. This is the most difficult beam dismount being performed today. And they allowed it. But they didn’t reward it accordingly. Simone Biles is a phenomenal talent, no doubt. The best of all time. She’s also spent countless hours of progression training and building to get to this point. We’ve seen unsafe-looking landings on vaults like a simple Yurchenko full at the World Championships through the years. And that doesn’t have to do with the level of difficulty of the skill itself.

USA Gymnastics submitted an inquiry. The Women’s Technical Committee didn’t budge. People are still left scratching their heads. Maybe it wasn’t common sense why they didn’t budge. Maybe it was a pride thing after so much spotlight had been put toward that and there was so much scrutiny? Or maybe it was because Simone had an initial response that contained an expletive and they weren’t pleased with that? Maybe… we could go on and on. Who knows. It just doesn’t seem logical.

In an NBC article, Biles said, “If it were [a gymnast from] another country trying it, it would definitely be a J. But because it’s me. It’s so unfair, because, am I in a league of my own? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t credit me for what I’m doing… They keep asking us to do more difficulty and to give more artistry, give more harder skills. So we do, and then they don’t credit it, and I don’t think that’s fair. They keep asking for more, we give them more and they don’t credit it. So what’s the point of even asking? If you’re going to give it an H, nobody’s going to try it. But if you give it a J, not saying people will try it more, but at least it makes sense to try it because it’s something to shoot for.”

Perhaps Olympic medalist Morgan Hamm said it best in a post:

“So… you upgrade a skill… that no one has successfully upgraded in 30 years and you get 1 tenth more in value and we wonder why there isn’t more innovation in gymnastics. If it’s too dangerous, ban it. If not, give it the value it deserves…. #rewardtheinnovators”

Again, maybe it’s not the Code itself. It’s the way it’s evaluated, applied and judged. Perhaps it’s time for the sport to re-think all of that. The gymnasts and the sport deserve better.