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Judges, and those who should be judged

WashPost: Hamm error was bad, but it wasn't deliberate, like Salt Lake

Incompetence in judging is bad. Impropriety in judging is much, much worse. And that's what separates the figure skating judging scandal of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics from the gymnastics judging embarrassment here this week that led to three judges being suspended Saturday.

From what we can tell as of very late Saturday night, the tenth of a point deducted improperly from the start value of a South Korean gymnast's parallel bars program is regrettable. It was wrong, and worse yet, it was quite avoidable. The deduction cost Yang Tae Young not just a medal, but a gold medal. Yes, a tenth of a point in gymnastics is that big a deal. And the judges just forgot to account for it. They left it off the kid's total and he finished with bronze instead of gold. Every time he looks at that medal for the rest of his life, he'll know it's the wrong color, that it does not accurately measure the fullness of his performance Wednesday night in the men's individual all-around. And, for that, no apology is ever adequate, especially when the event doesn't roll around every Sunday afternoon or every season or even every year. A kid put every bit of himself into competing in this event and the judges blew it, plain and simple.

But you know what? It happens. In every sport it happens. In certain Olympic sports a judging scandal is as common as the morning paper laying on the front steps, and I'm talking, of course, about figure skating and boxing. But it happens in others, too, sports in which judging or officiating isn't the sole means of determining the outcome. Half the Monday mornings between Labor Day and Christmas the NFL finds itself apologizing to some owner or coach whose team lost a game, or at the very least couldn't win a game, because of a bad call made by a guy in a striped shirt. Teams have lost chances to win championships because of lousy officiating, like the Sacramento Kings in 2002. It happens in almost every sport, any place, really, where human beings are asked to make a judgment.

If athletes can screw up, judges and referees can screw up. It happens every single day.

And if this is what happened Wednesday night with the Korean kid, an Olympic suspension is about all we can expect.

But keep in mind the International Gymnastics Federation has also said the three judges are suspended "pending inquiry."

Now, that's where it gets murky. See, the last time we had "pending inquiry", a French judge wound up testifying that officials in her country's skating federation had pressured her to favor a Russian ice dancing pair over a Canadian pair. That constitutes intent, perhaps even intent to defraud.

Either way, it went straight to the integrity of the competition, which is why ultimately the Canadian pairs skaters, David Pelletier and Jamie Sale, received their own gold medals. If judges tamper with the outcome without the severest of punishments, we've moved away from sport to exhibition. I've always thought that was more objectionable than someone taking a performance enhancing drug. That's darn close to "fixing" and it's unforgivable in someone sworn to administer the contest fairly and impartially.

The judges who defrauded boxer Roy Jones in Seoul in 1988 were sent away for a long, long time. It was discovered that there was intent.

Incompetence is bad, but we all have to live with it. Intent to manipulate is sinister.

There's nothing (yet) to suggest the judges were conspiring to help Paul Hamm, the Wisconsin kid who got off his backside, literally, to turn in near-perfect routines on the parallel bars and the high bar in his final two events of the evening to go rather unbelievably from 12th to first. If the South Korean had been credited with a 10.0 start value, he'd have won gold and Hamm would have had to settle for silver.

We have to deal with the question of whether this devalues Hamm's medal. Not any more than the Lakers' 2002 NBA Championship is devalued. But we'd better not find out during the "pending inquiry" that there was anything sinister that transpired. Because you know what that'll mean.

It'll mean somebody will call a news conference and, before you know it, there will be a duplicate gold medal that will be awarded to the South Korean gymnast.

If what happened Wednesday night is simply a case of a judge screwing up, an apology and a suspension are all that are due anybody, no matter how heartless that may seem under the circumstances. This is what everybody accepts, for better or worse, when they enter an arena or field, rink or ring. You hope for everybody to leave the field of play in good health and for the refs or judges to have been invisible. And most of all, you hope nobody has taken liberties with the sanctity of competition, lest we wind up with more suspensions, more apologies, or worse.