The C Score (2.0)

Archive for September 9th, 2008

From CNN:

Honestly, I think the evidence is pretty convincing on this one. (Honestly, the best evidence comes from what a hacker dug up in Google Cache, meaning that people who have randomly taken interest in this case are doing a better job than FIG. He found He Kexin’s birth year as 1994 in official documents that have been systematically removed from the Internet.) Up to half of the Chinese team was likely underage. But what should be done? Firstly, FIG should — if nothing but for its own reputation — start a demanding formal investigation of this issue. Cheating cannot be treated lightly, especially not at an event with the supposed spirit of the Olympic Games. Second, if it comes to light that anyone on the team was underage, the entire team should be stripped of any relevant individual or team medals. This second part is not exactly a groundbreaking opinion. The first appears to be though, since FIG seems to be dealing with this situation far too lightly. Of course, there are geopolitical issues to consider — many countries don’t trust Chinese official records, and why would you? It would be less of a problem in an open democracy.

I think the most disgusting thing in all of this is the Chinese reaction. They feel attacked, of course. And they did win. But while the U.S. gymnasts, when questioned, have been asked what they think (by the likes of Letterman and Leno), they’ve all said that they hope it’s not true, that it will be investigated, but that it is not their place to comment as if they had some sort of proof. Shawn Johnson had the best answer, saying that she was friends with those girls, and she hopes it is not the case, and that if it is, it is probably not their faults (which is likely true). (Nastia Liukin was a little jingoistic in saying that Americans would never do something like that, but that may be a topic for another time.)

By contrast, Lu Shanzhen said:

It’s because the Chinese women’s team is such a strong competitor for the U.S. team. That’s why there are such suspicions.

It’s unsportsmanlike and, frankly, false. The only person affiliated with the U.S. team who has made comments to that effect is Bela Karolyi, and he doesn’t have an official role. Marta Karolyi and the rest of USA Gymnastics were not involved in the initial complaints. Since then, their role has mainly been limited to saying that they hope this is dealt with swiftly and professionally. I hope all sides live up to that wish.

The big question is what happens if the medals get redistributed. The United States would get gold, and it would be recorded as such, but who wants to win gold in that way? Remember that Simona Amanar gave her gold medal back to Andreea Raducan after the debacle at the 2000 Olympics. It was rightfully Raducan’s firstly (more on that in another post?). But I’m sure it was partly that Amanar didn’t want something that she didn’t feel she had earned. I doubt the 2008 U.S. Olympic team would either.

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In Part II, I ask:

Is overtraining responsible for the loss to the Chinese?

The simple answer is no. I am already ambivalent enough about the suggestion that there is evidence that the team was overtrained, but I am pretty convinced that it didn’t affect the outcome. There are a couple of reasons.

First, one has to wonder whether the U.S. team, if overtrained, was any more overtrained than any other team — particularly the Chinese and the Romanians, who have notoriously insane training programs. So even if we were overtrained, we may still have been on a level playing field in that regard. It’s doubtful that Marta Karolyi was harder on our gymnasts than the Romanian or Chinese coaches were on theirs (not that this excuses such behavior).

But there are two other factors: first, team spirit. Our team simply did not have the focus and energy that brought us victory at Worlds. Some people, like Paul Ziert, have offered this as evidence of overtraining. I don’t know what it was, but it was definitely obvious.

The second, and most important, is the simple fact that combined A-score of the Chinese was 2.1 points higher than ours. Their combined A-score was higher in Worlds, but we relied on few mistakes to get around that. You can also often count on the Chinese (at least in the past) to screw things up right when it gets important. That didn’t happen this time. As Suzanne Yoculan said in the New York Times:

n the end, it was not the falls or mistakes of the U.S. team members that cost them the gold. It was the superior level of difficulty that the Chinese team had over the U.S. team. With this new scoring system in place, the team with more difficulty going in has more room for error. The Chinese team had over 2 points more in difficulty than the U.S. team. This advantage is hard to overcome.

The obvious comparison for this match-up is to 2007 Worlds, when we beat the Chinese. (If you don’t want the play-by-play, skip down to “The bottom line”

Let’s start with the Olympics. First, we started off the team finals with Chellsie Memmel’s injury, and Sam Peszek’s from warm-ups just prior to the finals. Performing in Olympic order, we were up on vault first, and managed to eek out a .525 advantage. But seeing as the vault has always been one of our specialties, particularly against the Chinese, this was not as good as we could have done (especially with Shawn Johnson’s side-step that she took throughout the Games on her 2 1/2). Next up was bars. Johnson second (after Memmel), and had really only one minor form deduction for a score that is similar to that she has received in other international competitions. Nastia Liukin’s bars were almost flawless in the air, but I think she deserves to lose a lot on the terrible form in her dismount. Still, her score was high. But after this point the Chinese had a 1-point lead, meaning they had recovered 1.5 points over us on bars. The fact that two of their competitors had a 7.7 start value did not help. I think that after bars, all of the energy that we had had was sucked out of us. Even though the Chinese had a fall on beam, we matched it with Alicia Sacramone’s fall on her dismount. That was pretty much the end of this competition. Even without the fall we still would have been .7 behind if we had matched the Chinese scores otherwise. As it happens, we made up .5 on the beam, leaving us with a 1-point deficit. That means that even without Sacramone’s fall, we still would have been .2 behind. It might have given us a little bit of mojo for floor though. As we know, by the time we got to floor, especially after Sacramone’s lead-off, the Chinese just had to wait for their turn to perform what was basically a victory dance. And all three, and particularly Jiang Yuyuan (as far as getting the crowd engaged), did just that.

Jiang Yuyuan, the face of the Chinese victory

Jiang Yuyuan, the face of the Chinese victory

Now the 2007 Worlds. It started off better, but watching only the first rotation is slightly deceiving, because we came close to losing in the third. Sam Peszek led off with a huge DTY, and everyone knows the lead-off person is key. Yang Yilin also had a huge step, winding up with a score under 14.5. Then, remember that Cheng Fei — then the world champion — fell on her 2 1/2. This is what we used to count on the Chinese for — falls. That is not a reasonable strategy. After these vaults, we had a 1.6-point lead over the Chinese, and as their combined A-score was only 1.8-points more than ours at the time, we had nearly made up the difference. (This even with Johnson posting a 15.150 on her DTY vs. the 16.0 she got at the Olympics for a 2 1/2.) On bars, He Ning (not on the Olympic team) had an amazing set, but Yang Yilin missed a few handstands and had a low landing. The Americans, by contrast, were flawless — at their levels (Johnson scored her standard 15.375). Going in to the third rotation, the United States was in first. But this is the famous meet where, just as Ekaterina Kramarenko was sending the Russians crashing into last place by faulting on the vault for a 0.0, Liukin was nearly falling off the beam and compensating by landing her dismount as a back tuck. This then led to Johnson’s early fall off the beam (before a spectacular recovery). Once again, we had some major problems. The only thing that saved us was Li Shanshan’s fall out of bounds on floor. Not only did this hurt China’s score on floor, it gave the Americans a sense that they could win it. Johnson went up and nailed it, and Sacramone was then in her tremendously sassy mood which, combined with her pep talk to the team between rotations three and four, made her the hero of these championships. (Quite the difference from the blame-game she’s been the focus of since the Olympics. (As we all know, John Roethlisberger, and anyone else with a brain, have convincingly argued that this is not the case.)

The Bottom Line:

At Worlds, we were first in all of the rotations except beam. By contrast, at the Olympics, we were first only twice, and second and third on bars and floor (the Romanians were second). Our two best apparatuses, relative to the Chinese, are probably vault and floor. At Worlds, we beat them on vault by nearly 1.6, and they finished in fifth on that apparatus. At the Olympics, they finished second, and that by only around .5. On floor, we beat them by nearly one point at Worlds. The big difference at the Olympics? We lost by 1.3 points to the Chinese — on the floor. The Chinese made huge improvements over the last year, and most importantly in consistency. We relied on this not happening.

My point is: not only did we perform better (at least on some apparatuses), but the Chinese performed worse. We relied on their mistakes, not only to depress their scores, but to boost ours by giving us confidence. There is no doubt that there is a huge effect of context on athletes’ performance, and the Americans felt ready to win at Worlds. They didn’t seem as secure in that feeling at the Olympics.

If anyone is to “blame” for the loss at the Olympics, it’s the U.S. team leaders for not realizing that eventually the Chinese and their A-score advantage would eventually come out on top. (A good clue would have been that they won Worlds in 2006), for the first time ever.

So that we don’t leave this one on a down note, here’s a picture of our World champions (still reigning!):

The U.S. World gold medalists, 2007

The U.S. World gold medalists, 2007

Since the Olympics ended, there has been some grumbling in the gymnastics community — and in the New York Times — about the possibility that U.S. gymnasts were overtrained by national-team coaches. There are obviously two questions here: 1) Were these gymnasts overtrained? and 2) If so, is overtraining responsible for our second-place finish?

Was the U.S. team overtrained?

Let’s try to answer the first question first. There is certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing in this direction, but we have no direct evidence. I think it is slightly irresponsible (if understandable) of people like Paul Ziert to state the case of overtraining as fact, given that we don’t have access to the training sessions for confirmation, and such a charge hasn’t been leveled at Marta Karolyi by any of her (current) athletes. There are two main pieces of evidence that have been used in recent opinion pieces on this issue: first, that the American gymnasts looked tired and unenthusiastic during team finals; and second, that the number of injuries in the days leading up to the Olympics was too high. In his International Gymnast op-ed, Ziert claimed that the team looked overtrained:

[On floor] Shawn has yet to show the joy that made her not only a champion but a crowd favorite. Of course, her difficulty will impress most, but the fact that she can be overtrained and still hit routines is what impresses me, although I don’t think it’s smart or fair. What was painful was to watch Alicia Sacramone’s routine. Everything about her performance indicated overtraining. When both mind and/or body are tired, they don’t work well together. Why else would she go out of the area on her 2½ twist punch front full both at podium training and here in the qualifying. I contend that with both the injuries and overtraining, she ran harder and hurdled bigger to make sure she made the pass.

Then he continues, with reference to mistakes made on bars and vault:

I believe that these types of mistakes cry out with overtraining. When the mind and body are not in sync because one or both are exhausted, this is what can happen.

Susan Yoculan, director of Georgia’s amazing gymnasts program until 2008, said similar things in her blog commentary for the New York Times (though she ultimately attributed the loss to the difference in overall A-scores, which I’ll get back to):

Shawn in last up and once again the U.S. goes out of bounds. It is shocking that Shawn, too, is distracted. She looks great but there is definitely a spark missing.

Honestly, though, I don’t think we are at a point where we can say that a demonstration of distraction or lack of enthusiasm is a clear sign of overtraining. That’s a really hard case to make.

On the other hand, as this New York Times article points out, underperformance is a symptom of overtraining. (Note that the article isn’t specifically about gymnastics.) I think that the better argument is the one based on injury.

Even before these Olympics, I thought that Shawn Johnson’s coaches had it right. Four hours of practice a day, public school. Not only does she not risk overtraining, but she has a normal life and does not discount academics entirely in favor of athletics. The way she has described it, her time in the gym is more intense, with no real breaks to speak of. On the other hand, she was the only member of the team without a major injury to speak of from somewhere in her career.

The best argument Ziert makes that the women’s team was overtrained is based on the high prevalence of injuries. Sam Peszek’s sprained ankle, Chellsie Memmel’s break. (Recall that Alicia Sacramone was also injured earlier this year.) It’s possible, as Marta Karolyi suggested in this Time article that we might have performed better with Memmel on beam. Who knows? I think more important, however, is the fact that this article purports to be about overtraining but is really about whether the Code of Points pushes gymnasts to compete harder skills. If that’s the case, it’s not really relevant to this debate, because all gymnasts from all countries are competing with the same Code.

Overall, I think the main problem with the overtraining argument is that we don’t have proof. There’s some circumstantial evidence, and there’s Karolyis’ history (we know there’s a definite tradition of overtraining there). Definitely we had some errors that seemed uncharacteristic, and we seemed to lack charisma that we had at Worlds in 2007. Still, before we blame this whole thing on overtraining, we should think about other possible explanations — see the next post.

 

Pictures: Alicia Sacramone, the emotional face of the U.S. team

 

Alicia Sacramone with Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson at 2007 Worlds

Alicia Sacramone with Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson at 2007 Worlds

 

Alicia Sacramone at the 2008 Olympics

Alicia Sacramone at the 2008 Olympics

 

Next up: Is overtraining responsible for the loss to the Chinese?


About The C Score

First there was A score and B score, now D score and E score. Where is the C score? Right here. In the form of my random thoughts about women's artistic gymnastics.

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