Gymnastics: Gone is the perfect 10

July 18, 2008, 11:09 a.m. (ET)

When the gymnastics competition in Beijing starts on August 9, don't look for anyone to bring back memories of Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10. Or even a 9.5.

Now top scores run in the 16s and - rarely - low 17s.

In 2006, the International Gymnastics Federation began using a new scoring system. A gymnast's total score is now a combination of two parts - one for the difficulty of the routine and one for how well the routine is executed. Rather than being limited to a maximum score of 10, new scores are open-ended.

At the 2007 World Championships, winning scores ranged from 15.250 to 16.350 for the women on four apparatuses, and 16.150 to 16.700 for the men on six.

FIG looked at revamping the scoring system after scoring irregularities at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In the high bar, defending gold medalist Aleksei Nemov failed to medal after performing what many argued was a flawless routine with six release moves. His biggest error was a step on his landing. He was originally given a score of 9.725, but two judges revised their scores after the crowd protested loudly. His new score was 9.762, which put him in fifth.

Paul Hamm performed a less difficult routine - he did only three release moves - and also made a small step on landing, but his score of 9.812 put him in second.

The new scoring system definitively rewards more difficult routines.

Here are the basics of how it works: The total score is the sum of a difficulty score - referred to by the gymnasts as the A-panel score - and an execution score - called the B-panel score.

Difficulty score (A-panel score): The difficulty score is determined by two judges who total values for the 10 most difficult skills in a routine, including the dismount. Each skill has a pre-determined value depending on its difficulty. The judges determine the difficulty score during an athlete's performance, not beforehand, in case a skill is performed in such a way that it does not meet the technical requirements for that skill.

Under the old scoring system, the difficulty of a routine was called the start value with a maximum of 10 points. Under the new system, the difficulty score includes points for connecting difficult skills and points for required elements. By separating it from the overall score, gymnasts and spectators can more readily see how routines differ from gymnast to gymnast.

At the Olympic Trials, top difficulty scores for the men ranged from 6.600 to 7.000 in the vault; for the women, 6.900 on the balance beam to an astonishing 7.700 in uneven bars.

Execution score (B-panel score): The execution score begins at 10, and six judges make deductions for errors in technique, execution, and artistry. A small error nets a 0.1-point deduction, while a fall is an automatic 0.8-point deduction. Previously, a fall led to 0.5 points off the final score.

Under the old scoring system, judges started at zero and added deductions, then subtracted this amount from the start value.

Scores around 9.5 to 9.6 are common in the finals, and the perfect 10 is far more elusive.

Total score: Add the difficulty score (e.g, 6.600) to the execution score (e.g., 9.500), and the final score in this example is 16.100.

As a comparison between the old scoring system and new, USA Gymnastics uses Carly Patterson's balance beam routine from the overall competition at the 2004 Olympics. Her score of 9.725 won both the balance beam portion and helped pull her into first in the all-around event.

Under the new scoring system, her routine would have earned her a 6.4 for difficulty and a 9.3 for execution, or 15.7 total points.

Most gymnasts say that the new scoring system has had a significant effect on their sport. Look at Patterson's derived score versus Shawn Johnson's winning balance beam score at Olympic Trials in June. On the second day of competition, Johnson's routine received 6.9 points for difficulty (A-panel score) and her execution (B-panel) score was 9.350, giving her an overall score of 16.250.

Were Patterson still competing, she would have to increase the difficulty of her routine to remain competitive.

 "It's pushing everyone to do even harder skills and try more things," says Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 all-around world champion who has competed under both scoring systems.

Nastia Liukin's uneven bar routine is a good example of the escalation in difficulty. She won the uneven bar title at the 2005 World Championships after performing one release move and one Ono spin (a one-handed spin from a vertical handstand).

"(It was) half my routine that I do now, and it was hard then!" she says.

Now her routine contains two Ono spins - one with another half turn and a Healy (a release move from a handstand). Those three skills are connected to a release move. If performed correctly, this uneven bar routine scores a difficulty value of 7.700 - one of the highest in the world.

The new scoring system "brings out the most difficult things in gymnastics," she says. "I would never have thought I'd be doing a bar routine like this if it weren't for this code."

Her father-slash-coach Valery Liukin adds, "it separates the boys from the men and the girls from the real gymnasts." Competing for the Soviet Union, Valery won one gold and three silver medals in men's gymnastics at 1988 Olympics.

"There are a lot of beautiful routines (in gymnastics), and they could be even or close to even," says Liukin, referring to the old scoring system. "Now you can see the difference. If your routine is difficult, it will put you up far from the rest of the world."

Not everyone is a fan of the new scoring system though. Ron Brant, the men's national team coordinator, says it has made the sport confusing for spectators, especially in the team combined competition in men's gymnastics. For a reason that Brant can't even explain, rings and vault net higher scores than pommel horse and high bar, making scores unequal until the final rotation.

Scores for rings and vault are generally in the mid to high 16s - even 17s - for the top gymnasts and high 15s to low 16s in pommel horse and high bar.

"After the first rotation, anybody who did vault will be winning even if they fell," Brant explains. "You have to wait for everybody to go through vault before the scores start to even."

In the final round of the team competition, the spectators can get excited for the team in the lead. But if that team is performing on pommel horse in the last rotation, their lead may be elusive. The team on vault or rings might take over the lead, even if they make big mistakes.

"(Using) the 10.0, it was perfect because you were going head to head," adds Brant.

Brant does concede that the new scoring system has made gymnastics more interesting for athletes and coaches because strategy comes into play. Should a gymnast perform a very difficult routine at the expense of the execution (B-panel) score?

"Do you do a lot of difficulty, which is what China is trying to do right now," explains Brant. "Or are you trying to maximize the B panel?"

At the Olympics, the top athletes will maximize both. With the world's top gymnasts likely scoring 17.000 or higher on some of the apparatuses.

You still can look for that perfect 10 in the execution (B) score, says Valery Liukin. "There still is a perfect 10," he says. "That's what we work toward. It's just a lot harder to get now."


Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.