Decoder rings

The perfect 10 is dead.

Long live the A and B scores.


Viewers who watch gymnastics only every four years are in for a shock. The scoring system that made Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton stars has been replaced by a complicated two-tier method that grades athletes on difficulty and artistry.

Like the scoring changes in figure skating put in place after the 2002 Winter Games (think weeping French judge, incredulous Scott Hamilton, and duplicate gold medals for the Russian and Canadian pairs teams), the changes in gymnastics are grounded in scandal.


At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Yang Tae-Young lost the gold medal in the all-around competition to American Paul Hamm when the judges gave the South Korean a lower start value - a mark reflecting the difficulty of the routine - than he should have gotten.

Days later, fans hooted and whistled for more than 10 minutes after Russia's Alexei Nemov, a 12-time Olympic medalist, was robbed on his horizontal bar score. As the noise bounced off the rafters and caused metal hand railings to shake, the judges huddled and changed Nemov's score from 9.725 to 9.762.

The old system, adopted for the 1920 Antwerp Games, was ditched after the 2005 world championships in Melbourne, Australia, so athletes have had time to adjust.

But just as in figure skating, where fans still grumble over the loss of the 6.0 perfect score, the gymnastics changes are sure to baffle and annoy quadrennial fans.

"I totally get it, but I don't like how the fans aren't getting it," said Dominique Dawes, the three-time Olympic medalist from Silver Spring. "The fans love the gymnastics that they're seeing. They know that what these girls are doing is quite amazing and that Shawn Johnson is the real deal and that Nastia Liukin's bar routine is amazing. ... However, they're screaming for the performance, and then the scores flash and there's no reaction."

To fully grasp the new system, to paraphrase Chico Marx in A Day at the Races, "you gotta have a code book."

Basically, the Code of Points scoring system goes like this:

There are two panels of judges. Two judges, or the A Panel, grade the performance on meeting requirements and the degree of difficulty while giving credit for connection of the routine's elements. Six judges, the B Panel, are charged with evaluating composition, artistry, execution and technique.


The score from the A group, called the difficulty score, is open-ended. The score from the B group, the execution score, starts at 10 and decreases based on the number of mistakes. The two numbers are added together for the gymnast's score. The best scores will range from 14 to 17.

Except in the vault. That's even more complicated.

Coaches and teams may question how the A score was derived but not the B score. No reason given.

Carly Patterson's balance beam routine at the 2004 Olympics earned a 9.775 out of 10 to win the silver medal. But under the new system, she would have scored a 15.7, according to a complex chart on the USA Gymnastics Web site.

Supporters of the new system say it rewards risk takers who commit small mistakes while pushing themselves to the limit over athletes who perform flawless but watered-down routines.

"It pushes you to do the harder things," said Chellsie Memmel, a 2004 Olympic alternate who is on this year's U.S. squad. "But I was sad to see the 10.0 [system] go."


Others, such as Comaneci, fear an identity loss.

"It belongs to gymnastics," Comaneci told Reuters. "I feel after so many years, everyone identifies the 10 with the sport of gymnastics. Now it's like we've given the branding away.

"It takes a long time to create something that is associated with the sport," the five-time Olympic gold medalist said. "Now the fans are confused because an open score doesn't mean too much. What does a 16 mean? Is it out of 100 or 50, or what is the highest score you can get?"

Dawes agreed. "Seventeen, I think they know that's great, but what are they supposed to do, scream and chant, '17'?"