Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Root root root for the home team and other tales of referee incompetence

Hoosierfan has triumphantly returned from Europe and promptly wrote this detailed report on the Summer Olympics.

How much of a home-field advantage is too much? Since I've returned to the states, I have had access to 24 hours/day HD olympics coverage. I have watched boxing, gymnastics, diving, as well as a mileu of other random sports. In event after event, the Chinese seem to edge the Americans by a tenth of a hundredth, or several hundredths of a point.

Example 1: Alicia Sacramone, who had a nearly flawless vault, was ousted from the medals by Chang Fei, who fell flat on her face and had serious technical flaws in her vault. Amazingly, the Chinese participant was not penalized for these errors as much as is standard. This was followed by a rant from the U.S. gymnastics director, or whoever that Russian guy is who is always on TV.

Example 2: Despite a near-flawless performance by American gymnast Jonathan Horton, on a daredevil high-bar performance, he was ousted by Zou Kai by 2 hundredths of a point, to which the CHINESE crowd booed! (The announcers said - "I believe the crowd is booing the low marks for Jonathan Horton.") As the Chicago Tribune writes - "Of course, it was a man from China, Zou Kai, who won gold." Indeed, the Chinese gymnasts were impressive. And they're performing on their own turf, but do they really need help?

Example 3: Despite Canadian Alexandre Despatie's near flawless dives, the Chinese diver, and in particular He Chong, despite major, major flaws in his dives, continued to receive perfect 10's, to the dismay of the announcers. Needless to say, the Chinese took first and third.

Example 4: American boxer, and 2007 World Welterweight Champion, Dee Andrade, loses to Jungjoo Kim (OK, he's Korean, not Chinese, but nonetheless) - despite peppering Kim with punches the entire match. They did not credit Andrade with many of the punches, and Kim pretty much just blocked and cowered the entire bout. I have no clue what the judges were doing - and most of the American boxing team is just as clueless. "Honestly, this don't make other kids want to come here or do this Olympic thing at all," said Andrade, who thought he'd connected with enough punches in the final period to win his fight. "To come here and know you're going to get treated like that (by judges) — what's the point in even coming?" Andrade didn't even stick around for the referee to raise Kim's hand. "It was pointless for me to be in there," he said.

U.S. coach Dan Campbell felt Andrade's pain. "I thought that was totally ridiculous," Campbell said. "He clearly landed more scoring punches. I was talking to the people back in the tape room and they saw the same thing we did. Demetrius should have had at least eight points going into that last round."

In fact, the entire American boxing team did poorly, with only one fighter, Deontay Wilder, qualifying past the first round.

So, who is it to blame for the poor performance by the Americans, and the amazing insurgence of the Chinese? I offer 4 explanations:

1) Home team bias - refs blatantly are biased towards the home team - usually at the urging of a large crowd. Not too much can be done about this - other than to get rid of all the sports that based on human judges, as these are notoriously inconsistent.

2) Poor strategy by the American teams / boxers: In Andrade's loss, it was clear that the judges were not awarding inside punches because those punches are less visible than the outside punches. OK then - change the strategy, start hitting him with outside punches. In fact, Andrade usually fights with outside punches, and it was highly unclear why the strategy was changed for this match (which it was).

In diving and gymnastics, the judges were awarding much higher scores for more difficult routines - which is why Horton was able to break through to silver. Too often, however, the Americans were satisfied with easy dives, and gymnastics routines. The Olympics is a high- risk, high reward venue. You got to go for it all because finishing 4th or 5th, just doesn't really matter. Also, despite not having any diving experience or knowledge, I could tell that the judges were awarding higher scores simply based on how high the diver got on their jump off of the springboard - because that is easily visible, whereas whether or not the feet are together during the somersaults is not so easily visible. So, why do a standing dive? Choose the high-flying dives that the judges (re)ward with higher points!

3) Judge bias based on preconceived notions: OK, so, we read ahead of time that the Chinese diver He Chong is the best diver in the world. So, no matter what his performance is, even if he separates his legs, makes a splash, goes in crooked and veers to the left on his dive, we will give him perfect 10's (this actually happened!). I can imagine a study that would prove this very easily: how many 'ranked' #1 athletes in judged events end up winning, versus how many 'ranked' #1 athletes win in timed events. Even though it should be easier to repeat in a track / swimming event, I imagine that the judged performance events will show greater consistency between ratings before the match, and actual performance. Further, I imagine the variance between judged events and timed events is much smaller.

4) Blatant anti-Americanism / anti-Canadianism. The poor Canadians just get the burden since most people think of them as our northern states. With much of the world despising the U.S. for our foreign policy over the past 8 years, perhaps we will be better off once relations are repaired. But the IOC is taking shots at the U.S. as well: discussions of removing baseball, despite its popularity throughout Latin America, Japan, and the U.S. - because the big names are not there (I don't see how this is different than soccer!?) The IOC is also discussing the removal of softball, due to the American dominance in the sport. Nevertheless, fringe / outdated sports such as fencing, equestrian, synchronized swimming, and the "modern" pentathalon stay on the agenda. Seriously, I would place a bet that more people play Ultimate Frisbee globally, than are modern pentathalon, or synchronized swimming "athletes." Speaking of which, why don't we try to get Ultimate as an Olympic sport??? There are 10 club teams in Berlin, and over 50 in Germany alone, and there is already a bi-annual world championships, with teams from 19 countries represented! Its also considered to be the fastest growing team sport in the world!

Either way, the IOC and the judging here is bordering on offensive. When the controversy arose over the age of the 12-14 year old Chinese gymnasts (who look like they're 8), the IOC decided that because their passports say they're 16, they must be 16. Look at them. And consider the facts that:
a) their old coach said they're not 16;
b) they magically produced a new, revised passport, when old passports said they were younger than 16; and
c) Did anyone consider the idea that the Chinese government could make a new passport for these girls declaring them whatever age they want?
Seriously, the incompetence. The incompetence extends beyond judged events and age discrepancies: the umpires and other referees in the Olympics really make U.S. umps and refs look fantastically competent. Today's baseball game between Japan and the U.S. required a conference among umpires to confirm that there were 3 outs in the inning (despite the scoreboard clearly displaying the correct situation).

Further, the ability of athletes to gain passports to whatever country they would like to play in the Olympics is jeopardizing the legitimacy of the sport. You should have to be a citizen for 5 years of a state before you can compete. You should not be able to decide in May to be a citizen of Georgia, and then compete for them in August at the Olympics. I'm telling you, we should all start trying to become Olympic swimmers from Djibouti.

One last point of complaint: Why can't the U.S. be more competitive at sports we should be good at?
1) Handball: We don't even have a qualifiying team. We have so many athletes who would be good at this sort of sport. We need a Jamaican bobsled team type of initiative, where we recruit former collegiate quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs, and I'm sure we could destroy the pansy European teams in this sport.
2) Field hockey - especially women's. Don't we have college teams throughout the country? Most countries don't have collegiate sports at all!
3) I'm sure I could think of a few others.

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