Keeping it on the field

BY GREG SKIDMORE

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This week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport will issue its decision in the dispute between Olympic gold medalist Paul Hamm, the American gymnast who won the men’s all-around competition, and Yang Tae-Young, the South Korean gymnast who finished third. The conflict centers on a judging error during the competition, whereby Yang’s routine was judged on a degree of difficulty one-tenth of a point lower than called for by the rules. Had the correct degree of difficulty been assessed, claims the Korean gymnastics federation, then Yang would have won the gold medal, moving Hamm down to the silver.

No matter what the outcome of this case, the Court erred by agreeing to hear it at all. Admittedly, the judges’ mistake occurred at the expense of the Korean gymnast and changed the course of the competition. His routine should have been judged with a greater degree of difficulty, and, in truth, this may have cost him a gold medal. Yang is right to be furious, right to call for the suspension of the judges (which happened) and perfectly justified in asking for the results to be overturned. But this is where reasonable, non-interested parties should have stepped in. The correct response: We are terribly sorry, but there is nothing we can do.

Instead, the International Federation of Gymnastics has tried to pin the blame on everyone but itself. In a move of extreme cowardice, the Federation wrote a letter to Hamm, asking him to return his gold medal. The United States Olympic Committee rightly intervened, refusing to even deliver the demand to Hamm. And now the IFG has allowed this dispute to be taken to the international sports court, so it cannot be blamed for whatever decision is made. The international sports community has set a dangerous precedent by allowing this appeal to continue. In doing so, sports’ governing bodies have opened the door to the possibility that the results of on-field competition could be changed later by off-field complaints and adjudications. Allowing these subsequent reversals would denigrate the spirit of competition and mean that no result could ever be final.

Perhaps an example from another sport will make the dangers more apparent. In one of the greatest officiating miscues of all time, officials in a 1990 college football game awarded Colorado five opportunities to score on Missouri at the end of the game, rather than four. During the last minute of the game, the officials lost track of the plays Colorado ran, and the team got two attempts at second down. On “fourth down,” which was really Colorado’s fifth attempt, the Buffaloes scored as time expired, winning the game. Bolstered by this win, Colorado went on to win the national championship. However, had the IFG been in charge, perhaps this outcome would not have stood. After all, Colorado did not score in its four legal downs and the clock was running out. Thus, the “fair” move would have been to take the touchdown off the board, giving the win to Missouri.

But this ignores the realties of sport. Had the officials gotten the call on the field right, Colorado would certainly have tried to score on its fourth play, rather than spiking the ball to stop the clock. Who is to say that the team would not have scored on that play? Or, assuming Missouri stopped them on four legitimate downs, how can we know that they would not have botched the attempt to run out the clock, perhaps allowing Colorado to score and win the game?

The point is that we do not know and we are left only to speculate. Changing the outcome of an event after its completion is an exercise in alternative history. Such counterfactuals are routinely cast aside as an illegitimate method of study because the practice relies far too heavily on conjecture and not enough on fact. Assume that Yang’s routine is scored correctly and he moves into first place. Perhaps the pressure of leading throws off his concentration, and he falls on the next apparatus, knocking him out of medal contention. Alternatively, imagine that Hamm, knowing he needs a perfect routine to overtake Yang, achieves a perfect score on his final exercise. Or suppose American fans, distraught with the knowledge that their competitor will not win, set fire to the building. There are literally an infinite number of possible outcomes. All that is certain is what transpires on the field of play. Attempting to change this after the fact creates far more unfairness than a judge’s error.

And what of this unfairness? The simple fact is that life is not fair. These cases do not involve deliberate fraud, like what happened with the ice skating judging at the 2002 Olympics, or cheating, such as Ben Johnson using steroids in 1988. This was simply a mistake. Judges are humans; humans make mistakes; and mistakes by their nature negatively affect one party. In the course of every sporting event, at least one mistake is made by an official, with that error potentially changing the outcome of the contest. Is this “fair?” Probably not. But it is a part of sports and a part of life, and governing bodies do a far greater disservice in allowing the results of a competition to decided outside of the arena.

Greg Skidmore is a 3L who predicts the Red Sox will beat the Yankees in 6 games. For other crazy talk about sports and the law, check out http://sports-law.blogspot.com.

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