In my earlier posts about the Olympics, there was one controversy about which I neglected to opine. In the women’s gymnastics uneven-bars competition, Nastia Liukin of the USA and He Kexin of China wound up with the exact same score. NBC announcer Tim Daggett then declared: “The computer applies its system to break the tie and He gets the gold and Nastia gets the silver.”
All of female America (and the part of male America that was watching) were outraged at this apparently arbitrary and unfair resolution, imposed by the fiat of a computer.
Now, I am far from being a gymnast of any kind, so I don’t really have standing to comment here, but I would like to offer my layman’s observations. First of all, let’s note that Liukin certainly didn’t deserve the uneven bars gold more than He Kexin—their scores were exactly the same.
The American sportscasting powers-that-be generally insisted that the tie-breaking formula applied by the computer was unnecessary: Just give two gold medals like they used to do when there were ties in gymnastics at the Olympics.
If I were one of the gymnasts involved in a tie, the two-golds solution would not satisfy me at all. You either win the gold or you don’t. Sure, the record books and your bragging rights would have you down as a gold medalist, but always lurking in the back of your mind would be the whisper: “Yeah, but it was a tie.”
So that leaves us with the need for a tie-breaker of some kind, and this is much more easily said than done. There would seem to be no way to have a fair “overtime” in gymnastics. All you could do was to compete the event again, and that’s not a tie-breaker, it’s a re-do.
Given this fact, a careful examination of what the computer actually did do reveals it to be just about the least arbitrary resolution possible. The gymnasts’ scores come from a panel of judges from different countries. The errors and/or favoritism of the individual judges is countered by the removal of the highest and lowest scores. To break a tie when need be, the computer automatically extended the same principle of removing individual bias by averaging the deductions of the remaining judges. The gymnast with the lower average deduction wins. It is all pretty darn reasonable, as tie-breaking systems go.
Of course, there is the greater truth that whining about coming in second (or losing) is never a good idea. To her great credit, Liukin never whined at all. (So far as I know.) The rules are the rules, as she herself acknowledged. Everyone knew the rules going in. No ties. The computer breaks ties according to a formula. Arbitrary? Maybe.
The even greater truth is that in this life, all judgments contain an element of arbitrariness. Only the judgment of God is perfectly fair. All other judgments—of gymnastics judges, or anyone else, you and me included—all human judgments are subject to further review. They will be thoroughly reviewed and adjudicated fairly…when the Man comes around.