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Judges Juggle Scores in International Gymnastics

August 9, 1988

Undated (AP) _ Men’s gymnastics coach Abie Grossfeld says it’s almost inevitable. Someone at the Seoul Olympics will knock on his door or stop him in a hotel lobby and suggest a deal.

Grossfeld will be asked to persuade the U.S. judge to give that country’s gymnasts a break in return for similar considerations for the U.S. gymnasts.

It is the behind-the-scenes politics of scoring international gymnastics meets.

″It’s cheating,″ Grossfeld said in an interview. ″People don’t like to use that word, but that’s what it is. It can be disheartening.″

It is also the ugliest blemish on the graceful sport Grossfeld has loved since he was a teen-ager growing up in New York City.

The Seoul Games will mark the third time Grossfeld, the Southern Connecticut State University coach since 1963, has coached the U.S. Olympic team. He was coach for the Munich Games in 1972 and his 1984 team won the gold medal in Los Angeles.

He has also served as head coach at the World Championships five times and has been head coach of the U.S. National team for the past seven years.

Grossfeld, 54, refused to identify people by name because he didn’t ″want to hurt anybody″ but gave some details of cheating incidents.

″I think it reached a height when the North Koreans came to my room during the 1983 World Championships and talked about helping their gymnasts,″ he said. ″The North Koreans had never been friendly toward us, but here they were coming to my room to make a deal.″

One time a Canadian judge suggested to Grossfeld after a particularly blatant incident that he was naive.

″I told her, ’I’m not naive, but if you just want me to accept cheating like you do, I can’t. It hurts too much inside,‴ Grossfeld said.

But that isn’t to say that the U.S. has never been party to the back-room politics, he said.

″You try not to be (dishonest), but what happens is when you see other countries’ judges give your team lower scores and give their own teams higher scores, the only way you can equalize it is to do the same or you hurt your team,″ Grossfeld said. ″So you try to balance it, reverse what they did.″

″When it comes down to it, I would not make a deal but I would go along with it if I thought we would get hurt real bad.″

Believing it would be useless, Grossfeld said he has never attempted to turn anyone in for cheating.

″It’s such common practice in Europe,″ he said. ″I get the impression that if you tried to do anything about it, they would just ignore you.″

Two people from the U.S. who will be judging gymnastics in Seoul, Bill Roetzheim and Ted Muzyczko, said cheating is a small part of a larger problem known as ″pattern bias.″

″In my many, many years of gymnastics I believe that the right person has always won, but if you only have one case in a thousand where the wrong person wins, it’s too many,″ said Roetzheim, who heads an effort by the Federation of International Gymnastics to eliminate pattern bias.

Roetzheim, 60, said steps are being taken by the FIG’s technical committee.

″The old guard was kind of dismissed after Los Angeles and the new committee moved immediately to get rid of any type of dishonest judge,″ he said.

A new computer system that will immediately notify the meet referee of any radical deviation from the mean score should also help reduce pattern bias at the Seoul Olympics, Roetzheim said.

Roetzheim said the referee would then confer with the event’s superior judge and, if it is determined that a particular judge is demonstrating a bias, the judge would be issued a yellow card.

If the bias persists, the judge would be issued a red card, dismissing the judge from the competition and other major competitions for one year.

A proposal by Roetzheim would eliminate judges from scoring their own country’s competitors. But it won’t be approved in time to be used in the Olympics.

Roetzheim said his proposal was tested during last fall’s World Championships at Rotterdam and, in every instance, countries scored lower when the score of their own judge was replaced by that of the neutral superior judge. He said the experiment proved the prevalence of pattern bias, but did not necessarily indicate judges were cheating.

″There’s a tremendous amount of pressure felt by judges scoring their own country,″ he said. ″If he throws a score that is low he would be rebuked by the people from his own country who sent him there ... Judges don’t want to judge their own country.″

Roetzheim, who will serve as a superior judge in the parallel bars competition in Seoul, also noted that judges often prefer gymnastics styles taught in their own countries.

″We could have (scoring) done in an almost totally objective way but you would risk losing the soul of the performance,″ said Muzyczko, 52, who was also a judge in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

″Realistically, we must be allowed to judge the originality of a performance, which I personally believe to be the cutting edge of the sport,″ he said.

Neither Muzyczko nor Roetzheim said they had ever been directly approached about making a deal or had ever inflated the scores of U.S. gymnasts.

″I don’t know what other officials from other countries do and U.S. officials are categorically for calling it straight,″ Muzyczko said.

″I view this whole situation very positively from the point of awareness and preventative steps being taken to make sure these things don’t occur,″ he said. ″To be perfectly blunt, I think a lot of people look for the darker, seedy side.″

Though not approached directly, Roetzheim believes opposing countries have subtley tried to influence his judgement.

″For example, somebody may have taken a picture of me during previous games and had it enlarged,″ he said. ″They say, ‘I took this and thought you might be interested.’ But the truth is they think you might be a little softer towards them.″

What particularly incenses Grossfeld is the practice of countries ganging up to defeat another country.

″I was told that four or five countries got together at the last World Championships and they were determined to give South Koreans low scores,″ Grossfeld said. ″I asked why. I mean five countries getting together? I never heard of a deal that big.″

Grossfeld said he was riding a bus several days later with a coach who had reportedly been in on the plan to defeat the South Koreans.

″He said, ‘Abie, how do you feel about the South Koreans?’ So I said to myself, ’Wow, it is true.‴

END ADV for Release Aug. 13 and thereafter.

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