LONDON – The idea of having an Olympic final featuring 24 athletes, but not the world's fourth-best qualifier and reigning world champion is, at first look, an assault to the senses.
That's what will happen later this week in the women's gymnastics all-around after Jordyn Wieber finished fourth in qualifying but third among Americans.
Since the Federation of International Gymnastics caps participation in the finals at two per country, Wieber was out. The rule has been decried relentlessly since. Wieber's coach John Geddert deemed it, "dumb."
Perhaps it is, but an improved system isn't nearly as obvious or as smart as you'd think.
[ Related: Jordyn Wieber falls short of all-around competition ]
First, this is pretty much how every other Olympic competition operates. It's a way to promote various sports across the globe. Only the top two swimmers and top three runners from any given country can qualify for an Olympic race.
It's just those are hashed out at the lower profile national qualifying meets, not within the structure of the Olympics, as gymnastics handles it. The Olympics have long ago determined that it would rather have a global competition than, say, a swim meet featuring a preponderance of athletes from three or four countries.
The United States could probably field a dozen men's basketball teams better than Tunisia. That isn't how anyone views the Olympics. So we choose one (we could have a tourney of contending squads if we wanted) and call it our team.
"That's just how we do it," said Martha Karolyi, the director of the U.S. gymnastics team. "It is very difficult, but that is it."
There's more to it. While gymnastics is arguably the most pressure-packed competition of the Olympics featuring gifted, dedicated, and mentally tough athletes, it isn't a sport in the traditional sense.
It is a competition. It relies on subjective decisions, not objective measures. A swimmer must touch the wall ahead of the others. An arrow must strike near the bull's-eye more often. A distance runner must finish ahead of the pack.
Since you can't have a pool big enough for hundreds to race in at the same time, a clock is used in some trials. A clock is not subjective like a judge.
[ Photos: U.S. men's gymnastics team in action ]
Gymnastics (and diving and figure skating and other competitions) is different. It relies on humans to decide who did the best routine. They attempt to quantify things as best as possible, but in the end it's their eyes and mind that determine the winner.
The byproduct, at least in women's gymnastics, includes athletes wearing make up and sparkly outfits in an effort to influence the judges. It's hard to be ugly and be a champion gymnast. No one cares what Usain Bolt looks like.
Wieber, if anything, was likely penalized for being more powerfully built than some other gymnasts since Olympic judges have long seemed to favor lean, lithe competitors. It's what Shawn Johnson's camp complained about four years ago.
Geddert railed about the officiating after, claiming Wieber didn't get "the scores she normally does. She got nothing tonight." He may be right. That's gymnastics, though.
And that's where the national limit comes into play. Judges also have the human tendency to have scores rise as the competition gets better. One great performance tends to impact the next – whether that routine is better or not.
Bela Karolyi, whose been around the sport for decades and is Martha's husband, wondered if Wieber was affected by the order of competitors in the floor exercise, the U.S. team's final discipline.
Wieber went third. Aly Raisman, who unexpectedly finished first among the Americans and thus knocked Wieber out of the all-around, went directly after her. Karolyi noted that judges' scores generally go up and had the places been reversed perhaps the results would have, too.
Again, that's gymnastics. That will always be gymnastics.
Now, the problem with giving too many slots to one country is that it can further cloud judge's scores. Being a member of a great team means you are surrounded by other great gymnasts and thus have an advantage.
Weaker members of a stronger team could have their scores artificially boosted because of whom they follow. Meanwhile, a competitor from a developing program or nontraditional nation, who might have competed in a morning qualifying session in a half-full arena lacking energy, atmosphere, and comparative greatness, might suffer.
The whole thing is a mess and everyone knows it. USA Gymnastics holds a national trials to determine its Olympic team. Except it doesn't really. It's a made-for-TV program. While there is judging, only the top two scorers (after meeting certain scoring qualifications) get an automatic spot on the team. A committee chooses the other spots because everyone agrees that judging is inherently flawed.
So fine, the two-athlete-per nation rule may be the worst system in the world. Well, except for all the other systems.
It's tough for Wieber, who dreamed big. She will still compete for a team title and individually in floor exercise. In the end, she was done in by her sport.
Gymnastics is gymnastics. Just enjoy the show because no one ever knows who really had the best performance.
They hand out a gold medal anyway.
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