The drama of sport, as Jim McKay used to remind us weekly, is both “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” As I’ve waxed most recently, the current crop of sports commentators hired to deliver this drama to us is often so eager to dumb it down and spoon feed it to us, that they often jump to conclusions that are not only premature but frequently wrong. But just ask, Vinko Bogataj, defeat sells; over and over again, actually. But in the case of Alicia Sacramone, and the women’s team gymnastics final, both the live commentary and the post event interviewer had laid the failure of the “favorite” US women’s team to win the gold squarely (and incorrectly) at her feet.
There’s no doubt that Alicia had a bad night. There’s no doubt that she won’t be remembered for the many other great performances she turned it. She’ll see the replay of her falling off the balance beam and landing a floor tumbling pass on her tuckus more frequently in her head than they’ll be played on YouTube or NBC’s wrap-up shows, put together. But to watch this young lady’s inner turmoil was painful, and to hear the disappointed tones of Tim Daggett or the inane and tortuous questioning of Andrea Joyce was too much to take.
Turns out that a little math would reveal that it wasn’t Alicia’s fault. Turns out that even if Alicia had scored evenly with her teammates it wouldn’t have mattered. Turns out that the real story of the night was the brilliance of the Chinese team. And yes, I know those girls aren’t all 16, but what are we to do, cut off one of their legs and count the rings? Is it any less impressive if they’re 14? No matter where you stand on those issues – the point is, NBC owes Alicia an apology. Turns out that the most impressive parts of Alicia’s routine are the parts she did after she fell (which were exceptional). Isn’t that the real lesson to take away?
The Math: An Overture in Three Parts
Let’s assume that there are three possible ways that Alicia could have performed “successfully”: (1) she could have matched her scores from preliminaries, (2) she could have not made the two big “errors” that she made, or (3) she could have done as well as the other two girls. Mathematically we will represent the scenarios as (1) using Alicia’s exact scores from preliminary events, (2) adding back the .8 deduction on beam for falling off, and the .8 for falling down and .1 for stepping out on floor, and (3) averaging the scores of the other two performers.
Here is a breakdown of the preliminary and final (team competition) scores for the U.S. team for the events that comprised the final two rotations of the team competition:
Qual. Beam Final Beam Qual. Floor Final Floor
Shawn 15.975 16.175 15.425 15.1
Nastia 15.975 15.975 15.35 15.2
Alicia 15.95 15.1 14.425 14.125
The final score of the meet was China 188.9 and the United States 186.525, which a quick subtraction shows us to have lost by 2.375.
Scenario 1 – Alicia Accomplished her qualifying scores:
Actual Score Scenario 1 Score Effect on Team Score
Beam 15.1 15.95 +.85
Floor 14.125 14.425 +.3
Total Effect on Team Score +1.15
So, if Alicia had just been consistent, rather than having a few spills, we still would have come up 1.225 points short. Who’s fault is it now? Wait, there’s more:
Scenario 2 – Alicia did not make the big errors in her finals routines
Actual Score Scenario 2 Score Effect on Team Score
Beam 15.1 15.9 +.8
Floor 14.125 15.025 +.9
Total Effect on Team Score +1.7
So, adding back those major deductions would have gotten the team… the silver medal again, by over half a point. I’m sure there’s nothing more than Alicia would want in the world more than to take those mistakes back. But even if she did, there would still be gold medals hanging around the necks of the Chinese team. Still not convinced, there’s more:
Scenario 3 – Alicia did as well as her teammates
Actual Score Scenario 3 Score Effect on Team Score
Beam 15.1 16.075* +.975
Floor 14.125 15.15** +1.025
Total Effect on Team Score +2
* - averaging scores of 16.175 & 15.975
** - averaging scores of 15.1 & 15.2
Even in this best case scenario, where Alicia, ahead of all expectations, would have scored equally with her teammates, they’d still be listening to the Chinese national anthem after it was all over, having come .375 points short.
Enough Numbers Already
I have only on a few occasions wanted to slap a sportscaster as much as I wanted to hit Andrea Joyce after watching her interview Alicia (see Notre Dame play-by-play and color announcers on November 3, 2007). She did everything but just come right out as ask her how it feels to “blow it for the U.S” or to “let your whole team down”. Don’t believe me? Check it out:(http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/share.html?videoid=0813_Sacramone_JA143&forcereload=true). Which is not to say that I don’t understand the job of a journalist in asking the tough questions, but with their legions of statisticians and Olympic historians, couldn’t NBC have accomplished this simple analysis above? It took me all of five minutes to do this math. Wouldn’t it have been nice for Ms. Joyce to deliver the news to a clearly shaken young athlete that it wasn’t, in fact, her fault? I find it hard to believe that someone like that would pass up an opportunity for self-aggrandizement.
And Tim Daggett? The same Tim Daggett who was carried to his one gold medal but vastly superior Mitch Gaylord and Bart Conner? He ought to be thankful to even have that job. Was Pete Vidmar busy? Seriously, if you’re going to be purport to be an “expert” at gymnastics, I would think that the addition of scores would be somewhere in your skill set, right?
I suppose the answer is that they just can’t be bothered to do the math and neither can we; that we expect Olympic storylines to always star an American protagonist who either wins or loses. Is it possible that the Chinese women turned in a simply unbeatable performance? It’s more than possible, it’s reality. There isn’t a group of three gymnasts alive who could have beaten the Chinese last night – and it’s hardly an “upset” (as it has often been referred to in the first 24 hours of coverage). The Chinese have been preparing a team for these games since 2001, when they found out they’d have home court advantage. And by “preparing” I don’t mean the American version. I mean, taking the children from their homes, and training them all day every day – with no other purpose, vocation or goal. Like that or not, that’s how it is.
Either way, the U.S. didn't lose the gold medal, the Chinese won it. And our second place finish is nobody's fault, certainly not Alicia's. It just doesn't add up.