The much-deserved death of the perfect 10

Slate just re-posted my 2008 article in praise of the new gymnastics scoring system.  I stand by it.

“The new ‘open-ended’ scoring system was designed in part to prevent us from outgrowing the rules,” international gymnastics judge Judy Schalk told me via e-mail. Before the new system, just about all elite competitors performed routines difficult enough to bring the start value up to a 10.0; sailing over that threshold earned you no more points than barely clearing it. With the new system, gymnasts have the incentive to keep making their routines tougher and more complex. In every other sport, the competitors in Beijing are superior to their predecessors and get better scores to prove it. Why should gymnastics be the only sport without world records?
With the new system, gymnastics comes into compliance with the Olympic motto. That’s “faster, higher, stronger,” not “more graceful, more beautiful, closer to perfect.” It’s no coincidence that the Olympic sports that have historically chased the latter ideal are the same ones in which the women’s game overshadows the men’s: gymnastics and figure skating.
Figure skating ditched the perfect 6.0 after crooked judging in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics embarrassed the sport. The old scoring system already had many discontents, most famously great French champion Surya Bonaly, who showed her disdain for the judges at the 1998 Olympics by landing a backflip on one skate. It was illegal, it carried a mandatory deduction, and she was the only woman in the world who could do it.

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3 thoughts on “The much-deserved death of the perfect 10

  1. NDE says:

    So what happens once the best Olympic athletes in target sports (skeet, archery) routinely score 100% ?

  2. JSE says:

    The answer is clear: you mount the target on the back of a gymnast, thus increasing the difficulty level for both events.

  3. 10 years ago you had another article in Slate that argued that we shouldn’t worry about grade inflation. This article about the “perfect 10” gives exactly the right argument for why grade inflation is bad. Yes, there is still a lot of “signal” in inflated grades, but what is the signal? You end up grading more and more on reliability, and less and less on difficulty or creativity. That’s not even considering that grade inflation isn’t uniform, and also isn’t well-calibrated to the difficulty of courses. To the extent that GPA is used in college and job applications (and it certainly is used), the system rewards conservatism as well as reliability: One C in one course, and for some purposes your GPA has been badly stained. Difficult courses become dangerous, courses with less grade inflation become dangerous, and boredom in easy courses also becomes dangerous.

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