Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Breaking Ties

The summer of 1968 was a most exciting and memorable one in my family. Not so much because of all the assassinations, protests, riots and such, but mostly because we got to see it all in color for the first time. You see, in the summer of 1968, my grandfather bought himself a new color television, and gave us his old one as a hand-me-down.

The TV itself was a marvel to me, for all sorts of reasons I entirely take for granted nowadays. Not only were the pictures in color, but it had a remote control that could change the channel, volume, color and tint. I'm unclear which was more exciting: the discovery of channel surfing or the ability to make all the faces pink or green while sitting across the room.

Wow. Just wow.

The coolest thing from a modern, digital perspective was the way the remote control worked. The TV still had dials and knobs for changing channels and such, and the remote activated servos that turned the physical controls on the TV, so channel surfing still had the satisfying "clunk" of the old TV, plus you got to watch the knobs and dials move when you pushed buttons on the remote. Endless fun, really.

Two things we watched that summer probably shaped a lot of my future life: political conventions and the Olympics. I know there was other stuff on, but those are the ones I still remember vividly.

I certainly didn't understand much of the conventions, but the color, the bunting, the balloons, the big signs, the roll call of states with each delegation chairman trying to outdo the next with lavish praise for his home state before eventually casting the votes, the cheers: all made huge impressions. The sheer spectacle of American democracy at work was thrilling. I was also quite oblivious to all the protests and riots going on outside the convention hall. It was just the color and pageantry, the ritual, the excitement. I was hooked.

I'm sure that all had a lot to do with my later involvement in politics and government. By 1972, I was volunteering at the local party headquarters, and the substance of the convention and the nominating process was of interest. But every four years I still get quite a charge out of the memory of my first glimpse of a political convention.

The Olympics from Mexico City were something else altogether. In many ways, I think they were the first sporting event I was ever aware of. Neither of my parents ever gave a damn about sports (although Dad eventually paid attention because I was a sports nut; kind of a weird reversal of the way that usually happens, I think). But every four years, there they were, glued to the set, watching and following and rooting.

As with the conventions, I think it was the spectacle of the Olympics that caught my interest. I don't remember any particular events, just all of this weird, unaccustomed stuff on the TV, and my parents sitting and watching it, making time in their lives for this big event. Again, by 1972 I was actually interested in sports and the content of the games. But in 1968, I was hooked.

All of this is a very long-winded introduction to the topic that prompted me to write today, which is the current foofaraw over scoring in Olympic gymnastics. It always sort of amuses me that the two most popular Olympic sports on U.S. television, gymnastics and ice skating, share (at least) two things in common: almost no one pays any attention to them outside of the Olympics, and all these fair-weather fans seem to have strong opinions about the arcane and subjective scoring systems that govern the sports.

As far as I can tell, the one constant in the Olympic universe is controversy over the scoring of those two sports. The recent fuss over the tie breaker in women's gymnastics is just the latest example. And everyone seems to have their own opinion as to what must be done.

I come at this from the perspective not of an athlete, but as a former competitor and coach/administrator in forensics (speech and debate). The issues are similar, if not as much fun to watch on television. From the competitor's standpoint, you need to know what the rules are, and you want to know that they are applied fairly. As an administrator, you sometimes need to be able to break a tie score, as you sometimes need to come up with a particular number of winners at some stage in the competition.

As my wife and I discussed this last night, we both recalled instances when we were competing and tie-breakers came into play. In both cases we remembered being eliminated from competitions on the basis of tie-breakers. And I certainly remember applying tie-breaking rules a number of times when I was running tournaments. It's never desirable, but sometimes necessary.

This brings to mind two points about the gymnastics controversy:
  1. As far as I can tell, the tie-breaking rules were followed fairly and appropriately. Most of the issues I heard discussed had to do with the quality of the judging that produced the weird tie, and a little about whether the tie-breaking formula was a good one. I heard no indication that the tie was improperly broken.
  2. Perhaps more importantly, it is entirely unclear to me why the tie needed to be broken (other than the fact that the rules said so). Other sports allow ties in the Olympics, and there seems to be no harm in awarding two gold medals in a particular apparatus. It's not as if a single winner needs to advance to another level of competition or something.
Anyway, all very interesting. The memories come flooding back. I'm sure gymnastics will revise its rules so that in four years, all of us who have ignored the sport in the interim can once again criticize a system we don't fully understand or appreciate. But as with politics, that's one of the great joys of the Olympics. We can all sit on the sidelines, thousands of miles away, and opine to our hearts' content.

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