Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dirty tricks at the Olympics?

This article of mine appears in The First Post.

'Who judges the judges?' is one of the oldest questions in jurisprudence. It's a question that has particular relevance in Beijing after some highly controversial decisions in the first week of the Olympics.

Chinese shooter Hu Binyuan appeared to miss at least one - and possibly three - of the clay targets in yesterday's double trap event, yet was still awarded full points by local judges, enabling him to win the bronze medal. Australian competitor Russell Mark, who finished fifth, claimed that the boisterous home crowd had influenced the judges' decision.

In boxing, British bantamweight Joe Murray was incensed after judges awarded victory to Gu Yu, his Chinese opponent by 17-7. "The judges took it away from him," Murray's coach Terry Edwards protested. "I thought they were very generous to the Chinese lad. You expect a slight bias, but you come to the Olympic Games and expect a level playing field."

The British complaint came just hours after a Ukrainian protest against their lightweight Oleksandr Klyuchko's controversial 10-8 defeat by another Chinese fighter, Hu Qing. "I thought the Chinese opponent was not very good," Klyuchko said. At last year's world championships Klyuchko had easily defeated Hu Qing 26-13. The judges in the boxing were not Chinese, but a wildly enthusiastic home crowd may have played its part in swaying their verdicts.

Eyebrows have also been raised by the high marks awarded to Chinese contestants in both the synchronised swimming and diving events, even when performances were far from flawless.

The complaints have not just concerned biased judging but also alleged gamesmanship by Chinese officials. The US women's gymnastics team coordinator Martha Karolyi accused the Chinese of continually disrupting team captain Alicia Sacramone's preparations, claiming they contributed ther slipping up on the balance beam, and to America's defeat by China in the final. "First they called her [Sacramone's] name up, then they did not even put her name up even though the Chinese had finished... She was mentally prepared and then she had a mental break, then after not doing the job on the beam, her concentration for the floor exercise was bothered."

Sour grapes? Perhaps. But there is a tradition of host-country bias at the Olympics.

To this day, South Koreans are still mystified as to how their boxer Kim Dong-Kil was adjudged to have lost 4-1 on points to America's Jerry Page at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, despite having outclassed his opponent.

In the 1980 Moscow Games, television pictures showed Russians opening the giant doors at the end of the stadium behind the javelin throwing area when the Soviet thrower was competing and closing it again when he wasn't; the idea being that the draught funnelled through would give the javelin a bit of extra lift.

And 100 years ago, in the first London Games, there were angry American complaints after their runner John Carpenter was disqualified by British judges after winning the men's 400m having been adjudged to have blocked the British runner Wyndham Halswelle.

The problem it seems is one of prestige. Host countries desperately want to win as many gold medals as they can. When showcasing a political system is part of the equation - as in Moscow in 1980, Los Angeles in 1984 and Beijing today - the pressure is even greater.

Banning judges from officiating athletes from their own country, as recommended by Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates, in the light of the double trap shooting controversy, is clearly a sensible idea.

But even when only neutral judges are allowed, as in boxing and judo, arbiters have historically shown bias towards competitors from the host country. The problem is not just one of cheating. It's that everyone wants to please the Olympic hosts just that little bit too much.


Roland Hulme said...

I thought Rupert Campbell Black's heroic show jumping win - with a broken arm, no less - in the '84 Olympics was one of Britain's finest sporting moments!

Oh, wait. I've just been informed that was the climax of Jilly Cooper's book 'Riders' and didn't really happen.

Oh, poo.

Neil Clark said...

Yes, shame old Rupe was only fictional.

Anonymous said...

The best thing about the Olympics is that they prevent the media from banging on about moronic football all the bloody time.
Who cares about a few people running about and jumping over things anyway?
Panem et circenses, and all that.
The London games should be opened with no fuss, no media attention and the money saved should be put towards rebuilding our NHS and Public Transport infrastructure.

Anonymous said...

The singing was lip-synched, the fireworks were digitally enhanced, and the Chinese women's gymnastics team is a bunch of little girls. Is China even a real place?

Nazi Germany fell 9 years after hosting the Olympics, and the Soviet Union fell 9 years after hosting the Olympics. The clock has started ticking on the People's Republic of China.

I'm making a mental note, that in the event I become an evil overlord, not to host an Olympiad in my domain...