Mar 07 A perfect 16? Doesn't have the same ring as a 10

Aug. 06, 2008, 9:14 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING(AP) Turns out, the perfect 10 wasn't so perfect.

At least not in the minds of international gymnastics officials.

Four years after a series of scoring errors marred the competition at the Athens Olympics, fans who tune into gymnastics once every quadrennium are in for a big shock Saturday. The perfect 10 is passe. Fifteens, 16s - maybe even a, gasp! 17 - are all the rage.

``I hate the new scoring,'' said Mary Lou Retton, whose Olympic gold medal came courtesy of a 10 on vault. ``The perfect 10, you don't have to say anything to describe it. The perfect 10, you were perfect.''

Even more than the 6.0 in figure skating, the 10 was gymnastics' brand. Think of Nadia Comaneci, and you immediately think of that mesmerizing string of seven 10s in Montreal. Somehow, seven 15s doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

And regardless of whether you knew a pommel horse from a pony, it wasn't hard to figure out if a routine was good or bad. Start at 10 and count backward. The closer to 10, the better the routine. The further away, the less chance somebody's getting a medal.

``I thought they were crazy,'' Bela Karolyi said of the new scoring system. ``Why? Why is it needed? It attracted so much attention. The perfect 10 was something that was cherished.

``I thought it was crazy to take it out, a humongous waste. I still feel that kind of in this way, maybe selfishly.''

But the 10 returned to its pre-Comaneci mythical status after the 1992 Olympics, with none awarded afterward in international competition. That meant judges had to get creative when it came to separating the world's best gymnasts, with only so many tenths and hundredths of points to spread around.

That flaw in the perfect 10 was glaringly apparent in Athens, when scoring errors left fans and athletes alike unhappy. The men's high bar, vault and all-around all had issues, and the International Gymnastics Federation finally decided it had had enough.

``Something needed to be done to try and make it more fair,'' Retton acknowledged.

The FIG's solution was an open-ended scoring system. Unlike the 10-point scale, where evaluations of artistry and difficulty had to be jammed together, each now gets its own space and, theoretically at least, there is no limit on how high a gymnast can go.

The first score, the difficulty mark, measures how hard the routine is. Starting from zero, the values of the 10 hardest tricks in a routine are added together. The harder the routine, the higher the difficulty score will be.

The second mark is for execution. Starting from 10 - the FIG's way of claiming the 10 still exists - deductions are taken for errors big (wobbles) and small (bobbles).

``I'm always thinking about that. You can still strive for perfection in the B score,'' Nastia Liukin said. ``I'm always thinking how to get closer to a 10 on that part.''

Put the two together, and that's the final score.

Depending on the event, scores at the Beijing Games should range from the high 14s to the high 16s. Oh sure, there'll be some 13s thrown out there, maybe even an 11 if someone really struggles.

But see a 16, and you know somebody is doing something right. See a 17, and you'll have seen something really special; there have only been a handful awarded in the three years the scoring system has been used.

``(The 10) is what you dreamed of as a kid. You were always trying to reach a 10. You dreamed you'd do a routine so awesome you'd get a 10,'' said Jonathan Horton, who was fourth at worlds last year. ``But I'm pretty happy with the system. I've gotten comfortable with it.''

That's not to say he understands it completely. Throw all those numbers around, and it's bound to cause a math meltdown somewhere.

``It is pretty complicated,'' Horton said. ``You could sit down and look at a rule book for four years and probably still won't get it.''

Ah, but that's what coaches are for.

Athletes may have some nostalgia for the 10, but their main focus is on winning a medal. The FIG could decide to ditch numbers altogether and the athletes would find a way to make it work.

Routines have gotten much, much harder in the last year as athletes try to jam as many tough tricks together as possible to ratchet up their start value.

Liukin looks back at the routines she did in 2005, the last year of the 10.0, and she can barely believe how easy they were. And those got her world titles on balance beam and uneven bars.

``It's like half of my routine that I do now, and I thought it was hard,'' said Liukin, the only American gymnast who has scored a 17.

``It makes it harder but, at the same time, I think it makes it more fun because it brings out the best in you and brings out the most difficult things in gymnastics,'' Liukin added.

For fans who haven't seen gymnastics since the Olympics left Athens, reading Greek or Chinese might seem easier than deciphering this new scoring system. But they'll adjust, Liukin said.

``Honestly, I don't even think about that because I know you can't change it. So why even try and be like, 'Man, I wish it was still the old code,''' Liukin said. ``I try to deal with what I'm given, try and work harder and try and get my start values up.''

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