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Drezner Does Sports

Belle Waring notes one problem with this odd Dreznerian argument, but it's also worth noting that the objective/subjective distinction won't do the work Dan wants it to. Neither officiating in sports like baseball and basketball nor judging in sports like gymnastics or figure skating is subjective. In both cases the rules lay down objective criteria for what's supposed to happen. There's a fact of the matter about whether or not the pitch was above the plate, a fact of the matter about whether or not the player was in the paint for three seconds, etc. Similarly, gymnastics judging isn't done by looking at the performance and saying, "eh, I liked it, but only sort of." There are rules about what score you should get for executing which moves in which way. Both are characterized not by subjectivity, but by human error.

The trouble with the Olympic sports Dan objects to is that the quality of the athleticism on display is so uniformly high that human error is frequently the decisive factor. When you think about it, though, any basketball game that was seemingly decided by a last-second shot was always, in fact, decisively impacted by the inevitable human error in the officiating. The thing about the Olympics is that every gymnastics competition is like an extremely close game, because it involves several participants capable of near-perfection. If the competitors exhibited a very wide range of ability, small imperfections in the judging wouldn't matter, just as they don't matter in a blowout basketball game.

August 26, 2004 | Permalink

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» Subjective, intersubjective, objective Olympiad from Majikthise
Dan Dreznerapprovingly quotes Sport's Illustrated's Josh Elliott: No athletic event that is judged belongs in the Olympics. And no exceptions: No gymnastics. No ice skating or boxing. No synchronized swimming or diving. If it can't be won on the track, [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 26, 2004 10:48:06 PM

» Subjective, intersubjective, objective Olympiad from Majikthise
Dan Drezner approvingly quotes Sport's Illustrated's Josh Elliott: No athletic event that is judged belongs in the Olympics. And no exceptions: No gymnastics. No ice skating or boxing. No synchronized swimming or diving. If it can't be won on the [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 26, 2004 10:55:06 PM

Comments

actually, although there are some clear guidelines, I'd argue there's a range of degrees. executing a landing is one of those obvious ones, style and artistry less so, even if there is substantial agreement. and then there is relativity in the system of criteria and current consensus in the judging. for example, some of the russians argue that grace, originality, and flow in floor routines should be more important.

Posted by: Shai | Aug 26, 2004 11:19:16 AM

I don't think that is true.

Artistic presentation comes into play in figure skating and maybe the floor exercise, which can't help but be subjective.

And the some of the descriptions: how do you determine if a roll or a flip was "tight" enough or whatnot.

There certainly seems to be a qualitative difference between the 100m dash and gymnastics in the objectivity of the victory.

Posted by: Patrick | Aug 26, 2004 11:23:09 AM

I think an important distinction to make is that gymnastics, diving and figure skating (among others) are judged on an esoteric basis, whereas basketball, soccer etc. are officiated on an exoteric basis.

The scoring of professional boxing is basically esoteric; amateur (Olympic) boxing is more exoteric, since there are very clear rules not just on what ought to be counted as a scoring blow, but by virtue of the real-time scoring system.

Posted by: nick | Aug 26, 2004 11:24:57 AM

Sorry, but I think this is WAY oversimplistic. Yes, there are guidelines to the strike zone and gymnastics routines, but to imply that the scoring is based on facts, is to wear a very dark shade of rose-colored glasses.

For example, to go off of your strike zone analogy, I distinctly remember watching a Braves game some time ago with MAddox (or Glavine, Braves fans, help me out) pitching. As he most often does, he likes to paint the corners. The announcers repeatedly said that he does this so often in the course of a game that this technique, coupled with his generally superbly accurate pitching skills (at least at that point in his carreer) basically expanded the strike zone.

Now this is not to say that the rules or "facts" changed for him, but when the ball is low and away and moving 85-95 mph, and the ump has to make the call, the subjective nature of judging becomes ever so clear.

Similarly in gymnastics, I agree with your point that the performance level (especially in the final rounds) is especially high. However, after watching the now infamous high-bar routine where the Russian perfectly executed 4 dynamic releases one-after-the-other with not so much as a flinch, only to be out of metal contention...well, even though he did flub the dismount (by one step), the routine in general, it was undoubtedly superior to HAmm's routine, which had only 3 releases.
This is, admittedly from a person who only wathced gymnastics ever in the Olympics. But, judging by the objective facts, the extra release has to more than make up for the step on the dismount.

Posted by: Josh | Aug 26, 2004 11:25:26 AM

Actually officiating in sports like baseball IS subjective. Take, for example, an umpire's deteermination that a particular pitch was a strike. There are rules defining "strike," and the umpire is supposed to follow them, but ultimately, a strike is a pitch that the umpire says is a strike. If the umpire calls a pitch a strike, no amount of after-the-fact evidence (videotape, etc.) can change that result. The point is, the decision is confided to the umpire's unreviewable judgment . . .

Posted by: rea | Aug 26, 2004 11:28:34 AM

Rea is right. What's at work is the perception of the umpire working a game or judge working a competition. Which is why I prefer timed and measured events that one sees in track and field (athletics, if you prefer), though the jumps and throws too allow human perception to intervene.

Posted by: Jo | Aug 26, 2004 11:54:03 AM

The bit about the strike zone misses the point, though. Baseball scoring isn't based on how many strikes one throws; it's based on how many times a baserunner crosses home plate. In the end, that is indisputable except for cases where an umpire makes a factual error.

That said, I mostly agree with Matt, at least in principle - these sports aren't nearly as "subjective" as most people probably think. But if we're going to do comparisons, let's compare apples to apples.

Posted by: strannix | Aug 26, 2004 12:10:45 PM

The beach volleyball women blew away their competition. I have watching the judged sports for a long time, and have rarely if ever seen someone clearly superior to their competition.
10 round heavyweight matches always seem to end up 115-111. Somehow I doubt that it is because a truly exceptional performer has never competed, but because there is something inherent in the sports and the scoring systems that keeps scores close.

For instance, that an extremely risky routine is overpenalized on technical flaws, so competitors have incentives to play it safe.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 26, 2004 12:22:07 PM

well, you can make a similar argument for the calling of fouls in basketball. now, i'd argue that the word "subjective" is an oversimplification. like the strike zone example, there is relativity in the calling of fouls, most often varying with the level of contact tolerated, usually in line with the style of play emerging. but this isn't the "god is dead, therefore no rules apply" kind of relativity as there are some stable criteria to establish continuity in that class of judgement.

i don't know about the umpire example, but I think an analogy to basketball would produce a "myth of the dictator". basketball players and coaches regularly contest calls and do have some causal power in their determination. fans of the sport will also know that although calls are rarely reversed, there is some scheme of fairness which will cause refs to balance out injustices.

there is also a social organization where refs are held accountable for their history, not only by the media and the nba, but even in the ref peer group where there is mandatory review of video footage of questionable calls in an effort to minimize future human error.

one implication is that this doesn't necessarily follow for the olympics where charges of bias might be more accurate.

Posted by: Shai | Aug 26, 2004 12:27:23 PM

I thought this from Drezner was a howler:

_One could argue that there is some degree of subjective judgment in any sport -- umpires calling balls and strikes, officials determining if a runner jumped the gun, etc. However, it is exceedingly rare for the subjective elements in these sports to overwhelm the objective components. In gymnastics or ice skating, the entire competition is based on subjective judgments._

You'd think a runner being disqualified for jumping the gun would be about as close as you could come to "subjective elements overwhelming the objective components". Also, that's some nasty elegant variation, there.

I can't think of relevant baseball rules, but the phrase "attempt to gain an advantage" appears several times in the NBA rulebook, which certainly seems pretty subjective. (Also in the NBA rulebook: a technical foul may be assessed for "blaspheming" an official.) Similarly, pass interference and holding, though I don't know how those are described in the rulebook.

Posted by: jdw | Aug 26, 2004 12:30:42 PM

can we get some complaints about the nature of the olympic basketball refereeing? it was atrocious and caused America to lose to Lithuania. Remember that 'foul' Marbury committed with one second left on the shot clock? He barely grazed the guy's shoulder. Up until today's game against Spain (in which the refereeing was equally atrocious for each side) the US has been the victim of incredibly biased officiating.

And can we also condemn the Spanish coach for throwing a hissy fit? Imagine if Larry Brown pulled that disrespectful and immature stunt.

Posted by: brian | Aug 26, 2004 12:37:41 PM

In my opinion as a blogger, the Olympics are not worth watching.

Posted by: fling93 | Aug 26, 2004 1:52:41 PM

One other thought: consider the difference between grading a science or maths exam, and grading an English or history essay. For the former, there are marks available for reaching particular conclusions or showing degress of working. It's an exoteric subjectivity, because you're basically judging something based on what's on the paper.

For the latter, though, the difference between an A grade and a C is actually derived from comparison with past examples: that's why markers of English/history essays receive 'sample answers' showing the kind of essay that receives each grade. And while there's an after-the-fact analysis of the kinds of things that distinguish each grade, it's still basically a comparative, esoteric subjectivity.

That's what happens in gymnastics or diving: the judges 'know' what a 9.5 looks like because they've basically agreed on 'sample answers', and are looking for comparable performances. And just as a truly idiosyncratic essay can earn an A or an F depending on the judge, because it doesn't fit into comparative schemes, innovation in diving and/or gymnastics can earn the kind of dubious marks that Nemov's high bar received, simply because there's nothing to judge it against. As a gymnast, you're not just up against the other competitors: you're up against the entire comparative framework in the minds of the judges, accumulated from past performances and institutional guidelines.

In that regard, it could also be compared to common law (as opposed to a criminal or civil code), where precedent is what matters: it's easy to pass judgement on cases with lots of precedents, and tough cases often make bad law.

Not to say that this isn't present in otherwise 'exoteric' sports, but it's to a much lesser degree. The calling of balls and strikes is an obvious example; but there's also the example of how Pierluigi Collina prepared to referee matches, by watching tape of the teams and looking for any particular tendencies of players to bend the rules, whether by discreet elbows or Oscar-winning dives.

Posted by: nick | Aug 26, 2004 2:04:05 PM

What about the fact that judging many of the Olympic sports is incredibly complex, whereas officiating baseball, basketball, and soccer games is far less complex? Doesn't that account for the much higher variation in judging in Olympic sports? The strike zone is a very simple thing; a double-dribble violation is not difficult to spot; the offsides rule in soccer, often confused, is fairly transparent. Assigning a score to a performance that contains multiple elements, all of which may appear nearly indistinguishable, as others have pointed out, seems vastly more difficult. Most other sports require a "Yes" or "No" answer from officials (Was she onsides? Yes. Was that a strike? No.) Perhaps, when reduced, there really is a long list of yes or no questions to be answered by officials in any competition. But rather than in baseball or soccer, which have long lists of yes or no questions to be answered over the course of a long contest, Olympic judges must answer all of their questions in a much shorter amount of time.

Anyway. Point is: maybe they're all subjective, but in the case of the Olympic competitions at issue here, the task of the judges has a much higher error rate because of the complexity of their criteria.

Posted by: Nathan | Aug 26, 2004 2:04:50 PM

"However, after watching the now infamous high-bar routine where the Russian perfectly executed 4 dynamic releases one-after-the-other with not so much as a flinch, only to be out of metal contention...well, even though he did flub the dismount (by one step), the routine in general, it was undoubtedly superior to HAmm's routine, which had only 3 releases."

This just shows you misunderstand the sport. Nemov did about twice as many difficult moves as he needed to do in order to get to a 10.0 difficulty rating. Once you max out at 10.0 you aren't really getting credit for more. Perhaps gymnastics ought to go to a difficulty multiplier like diving instead of the 10.0 ceiling, but that is how it works now. Nemov did more than he had to to get the points. To use a basketball analogy, you are asking for a slam dunk to count for more points than a layup. Depending on how you want to judge athleticism and sport you may have a good argument for more release moves equalling more points, but in gymnastics as it stands right now, that doesn't happen past the 10.0 level.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Aug 26, 2004 2:08:29 PM

"What about the fact that judging many of the Olympic sports is incredibly complex"

well, maybe sebastian could answer that. he claims on the drezner page that as a diver, "I have no trouble predicting with at least 95% accuracy what the scores will be on a particular dive".

now i've been watching diving and I don't pick up much of anything, but the commentator on cbc was also pretty accurate.

unless I'm confused by the editing of the footage, there tend to be more dives in diving than there are routines in gymnastics, so I suppose errors (in judging and performance) would average out better in the former than the latter.

Posted by: Shai | Aug 26, 2004 2:45:16 PM

I'm going to start my own Olympics. The only sports will be basketball, football, boxing, and various firearm-related activities. Who's with me?

Posted by: Steve | Aug 26, 2004 3:56:46 PM

I agree with Nick, and I used to argue that grading exams was something like judging gymnastics. But that was until I learned about "making room." Actually, I learned about it from watching skating during the Winter Olympics, but I suspect it goes on in gymnastics as well. Basically, judges award lower scores to excellent performances by less-heralded athletes in the early rounds, thereby "making room" for the better athletes who will come later. In other words, a skater might blow everyone away but get a 9.6 because the judges know that a world-class skater has to perform better.

That's not exactly objective.

Posted by: Bob | Aug 26, 2004 4:00:39 PM

"The bit about the strike zone misses the point, though. Baseball scoring isn't based on how many strikes one throws; it's based on how many times a baserunner crosses home plate. In the end, that is indisputable except for cases where an umpire makes a factual error."

Not true, though. Most baseball fans can think of an instance or two in which endless TV replays clearly show a runner safe (or out) at the plate, where the umpire decided to the contrary. There's no reivew, no after-the fact correction, no reversal by the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings. Ultimately, whether a run scores turns on whether the umpire says a run scored, despite whatever the replay shows later.

Judgment calls by the umpire are part of the game.

Posted by: rea | Aug 26, 2004 4:55:17 PM

There is also an issue of audience understanding here. Most people who watch the Olympics (myself included) never watch figure skating or gymnastics in other contexts. Therefore we are much more likely not to understand why particular athletes get particular scores and tend to think that the scores must be subjective.

Most people that watch baseball, basketball, and football however have played (at least in the courtyard) or watched the sport extensively. Refereeing decisions thus seem much more objective to us.

Posted by: Stuart | Aug 26, 2004 4:58:30 PM

I will repeat my proposal for a football, basketball, boxing and shooting Olympics. Baseball could be included, with some serious rule changes.

I will never understand why Americans get all worked up every four years about gymnastics, track, even soccer. Have some dignity, people!

Posted by: Steve | Aug 26, 2004 5:07:16 PM

Groups of amateurs often play games like basketball and soccer without a referee. They call their own fouls, keep score themselves, and agree on a winner.

Such a thing is inconceivable in gymnastics or diving, let alone synchronized swimming or ice dancing. Without a judge, there is no game. And more often than not, someone feels like they got ripped off.

Maybe everything is subjective, but some things are more subjective than others.

Posted by: ed | Aug 26, 2004 5:25:01 PM

I will never understand why Americans get all worked up every four years about gymnastics, track, even soccer. Have some dignity, people!

Well, it might be because plenty of Americans realise that there's something a little undignified about declaring the winners of domestic leagues 'world champions'...

As a Brit, I'm amazed at the disregard in which athletics (i.e. track and field) is held in the USA. Watching the Olympics and Worlds on the BBC, there was a true sense that the American champions were superstars. Now I realise that most people couldn't give a shit. No wonder Michael Johnson is on the BBC's commentary team, rather than NBC's.

Oh, and if it were a football -- you mean real football, obviously, given that it's a more popular participant sport than the American variant -- basketball, shooting and boxing Olympics, the golds would be won by Argentina, Lithuania, China, and Kazakhstan, so I wouldn't get my hopes up.

Posted by: nick | Aug 26, 2004 5:35:33 PM

"Groups of amateurs often play games like basketball and soccer without a referee. [...] Such a thing is inconceivable in gymnastics or diving"

you mean we won't see a hastily produced "you got served" hip hop gymnastics movie? "dude, he just did a [insert famous but previously thought impossible move here]"

Posted by: Shai | Aug 26, 2004 5:59:31 PM

My point is, I'm not scolding Europeans or Africans or anybody else for enjoying sports in which grown men run around outdoors in short pants. I don't think Americans should be scolding for prefering a different sort of football, and for not caring about most Olympic-type sports. I don't think we should feel bad about our indifference and make up for it by pretending to care duing the Olympics.

Posted by: Steve | Aug 26, 2004 6:21:36 PM

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