Judges get butterflies just like the athletes

  • Wed Mar 14th, 2012 1:20pm
  • Sports

By Rich Myhre Herald Writer

It takes tough skin to be an international gymnastics judge. Usually figuratively, sometimes literally.

Like the time Steve Butcher of Knoxville, Tenn., one of the world’s premier men’s gymnastics judges, was working the Pan American Games in a Latin American country. The panel of judges posted a score, the audience disapproved, and Butcher and his colleagues were suddenly in a hailstorm of small batteries.

Even at those events where there are no near riots, gymnastics judging is a solemn, demanding, painstaking and occasionally gut-twisting job.

“Now that I’ve gotten to the highest level of judging, it’s no longer fun. Now it’s work,” said Butcher, who will be judging at this week’s Pacific Rim Championships at Everett’s Comcast Arena.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s still exciting,” he explained. “But I’m not going to this competition (in Everett) to have fun. Whenever you’re on the floor, and especially at the Olympic Games, you’re nervous. You have butterflies. You’re on live TV worldwide, so everybody is going to be nervous.”

And given the stakes for the athletes, not to mention the scrutiny of the fans, “we all have something to be nervous about,” Butcher said. But the payoff, he added, “is that it keeps us involved in a sport we all love, no question.”

Judges are the arbiters at all gymnastics competitions, and their impact is often more profound than officials in other sports. In baseball, for instance, a player can hit a game-winning home run and the outcome has nothing to do with an umpire’s call. But in gymnastics, an athlete’s soaring, flipping, twisting dismount might delight the crowd, but it’s only terrific if the judges say so.

And it doesn’t help that gymnastics scoring, under a points system adopted by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), is bafflingly complex. For the casual fan “it’s like rocket science,” acknowledged Cheryl Hamilton of Newark, Del., a veteran international women’s judge who also will be working in Everett this week.

Both Butcher and Hamilton have long tenures in judging, so they are accustomed to everything that is good and bad about their jobs. Butcher, for instance, has been judging since 1984 and is one of about 35 men’s judges in the United States who work international events. He judged at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and will do the same in London this summer, where he will also be the apparatus supervisor for the pommel horse.

Hamilton has been judging since 1976 and is one of 22 in this country who judge women’s international events. She worked the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo last October and will be an Olympic judge in London this summer.

Butcher is also on an eight-member FIG men’s technical committee, which guides and controls men’s gymnastics worldwide, including rules and scoring. Hamilton is chairman of the women’s technical committee in the United States.

Butcher and Hamilton have seen dramatic changes in gymnastics judging and scoring in recent years. Whereas gymnasts once started with a 10.0 score and then had points or fractions of points deducted for falls and other miscues, international judging now uses a combination of difficulty and execution scores to decide a winner (the combined score can be further adjusted with what are called neutral deductions, such as going over a time limit or improper attire).

In particular, the difficulty value (called the D score) can result in confusing outcomes for audiences. A gymnast with a higher D score can execute a routine with perhaps more discernible mistakes and still finish ahead of another gymnast with a cleaner routine, simply due to a higher D score.

In terms of execution, judges are looking for the same flaws that spectators can often see. Falls, of course, but also bent legs, unpointed toes and steps on a dismount landing. Less obvious are those elements that have to be completed at a certain angle or held for a specified length of time.

“Sometimes fans don’t know all the rules,” Hamilton said, “so what might look good might actually be missing something major.”

One difference between judging men’s and women’s gymnastics is that women are scored for artistry on the balance beam and floor exercise. “And that’s somewhat subjective,” Hamilton said. “What one (judge) considers expression, another might not.”

One of the most positive strides in recent years has been the FIG’s demand for consistent interpretation between judges from different countries. And in particular, judges from countries that might not be good friends, politically speaking.

At the height of the Cold War, judges from Eastern Bloc countries were known to favor their own gymnasts, though they might have accused judges from Western countries of doing the same.

But today “the politics has really gone out the window,” Hamilton said. “Since the end of the Eastern Bloc countries, we don’t have that so much anymore.”

International judges are also receiving constant evaluation, Butcher said, “and for judges to be blatantly cheating now is very dangerous to your continuing career, whereas 30 years ago that was probably not the case.”

No judging or officiating system in any sport is perfect, of course, but Butcher said gymnastics judging “has made drastic improvements over the years.” The goal, he added, is that “gymnasts can feel like they’re getting a fair competition, and the gymnasts and their coaches can now trust that judges know how to get it right.”

“All these athletes work very, very hard in the gym,” Hamilton said, “and I think all (judges) want to reward the gymnast who’s doing the job, regardless of where she’s from. … I’m not saying we’re perfect. We all make mistakes, but we all try to do the job to the best of our ability and we try to be fair to the athletes.”