A 10-SHUN DEFICIT
The perfect 10 is what changed Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton from pert pixies into international sporting stars and helped make gymnastics one of the most popular events at the Summer Olympics.
But that pristine evidence -- a clear-cut electric shock to the crowd and a joyous shout to the athlete who just stuck a landing, or flipped three or four times across the balance beam, or soared toward the ceiling on a vault before dropping daintily onto the landing mat with no excess motion -- is gone.
Now there isn’t exactly perfection in gymnastics.
For the women, on the uneven bars, medal-contending athletes might need a 17.300. On the balance beam maybe the winning score will be 16.850 and on the vault a 16.200. Same for the men. A winner might score 15.000 on the floor but 16.700 on the vault.
“It’s a little more confusing for the fans,” said Retton, who received two 10s at the 1984 Olympics when she won the all-around title. “And I think the athletes will miss it too.”
“I think the fans will miss it,” Comaneci said. “There are no comparison points now. It’s so hard to define sports like ours and we had something unique. The 10, it was ours first and now you give it away. We created it and our sport should be proud of it.
“The fans had become used to looking toward the scoreboard whenever a gymnast stuck a landing. You could tell they were thinking, ‘Was that good enough? Would the numbers read 10.00?’ The athlete was looking too.”
In a sweet bit of irony, when Comaneci received the first-ever gymnastics perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the scoreboard actually read 1.00.
Daniel Baumat worked for Omega, the Swiss company that made Olympic timing and scoring devices.
Before the Montreal Games, Baumat received an order from FIG, the international gymnastics governing body, for new Olympic scoreboards.
Baumat asked FIG officials if they wanted what they had -- a board with the capability of displaying only three digits such as 9.95, or one that could display four digits such as 10.00.
“I was told, ‘A 10.00 is not possible,’ ” Baumat said. “So we did only three digits.”
Comaneci earned that “not possible” score on an uneven bars compulsory routine. In 1976 gymnasts did two routines. The compulsory routine was performed by every gymnast. Gymnasts could also do a second routine of their own choosing and the scores were combined to determine medalists.
Even Comaneci said her routine wasn’t totally perfect. “I took a little step on the landing,” she said. “But I knew I had done really good.”
Baumat was near the judges’ table when the routine was finished. An official came up to him and whispered. “She asked what to do. I said that they could either put up 1.00 or .100 but that there was no possibility for a 10.00. Just as the federation had told me.”
When Comaneci saw her score displayed as 1.00 she was puzzled. “What did that mean?” She said the reaction from the crowd was like a verbal wave, confused murmuring turning into raucous cheering as understanding rolled through the arena.
Comaneci went on to score six more 10s in Montreal. Retton had two in Los Angeles.
Gymnastics is not known for its record keeping, and no one at either USA Gymnastics or FIG could come up with an absolute answer to how many perfect 10s were awarded between 1976 and 2006, when FIG dropped the 10 for a new system in which routines are judged on two components.
There is an “A” score based on a start value that is determined by the number and difficulty of skills completed, and a “B” score that is awarded by a second panel of judges for artistic impression.
The B score can be no higher than 10, so a gymnast can still get a 10. It just is hardly noticeable. Both the A and B scores are tiny numbers on an electronic scoreboard. It is the combined total that is displayed. Baumat still takes orders for scoreboards but they are all digital now and can display unlimited numerical combinations.
After a controversy-marred 2004 Olympics that included several disputed scoring decisions, FIG revamped the system.
Bela Karolyi, who coached Comaneci and Retton to their perfect 10s, was at first opposed to changing the system, though he now agrees that because the level of difficulty in gymnastics has grown so much, it was becoming impossible to separate the good performances from great ones within the narrow confines of 10.00.
“The 10 gave flavor and spice to the sport,” Karolyi said. “Our sport needs that. There was true magic in getting a perfect 10. I would have people running up to me saying, ‘Bela, perfect 10!’ For gymnastics it was identity.
“But then I understand, how can you judge if the score is 9.99 or 9.95? That margin is so thin, so what do you do?”
Shannon Miller, a seven-time Olympic medalist, also agrees the 10 is missed. “For the gymnast it was the one goal you had out there, a very specific goal. I’ll never forget my first 10, at a competition in Switzerland on the balance beam. I can’t even begin to explain the feeling of elation.
“Our sport is known for the perfect 10. The audience loves the 10. Little girls bring signs that say ’10.’ They’re still bringing them. I think a lot of people who only watch the sport during the Olympics aren’t going to understand what they’re seeing.”
Bart Conner, who competed for the U.S. at the 1984 Olympics and who is now married to Comaneci, is not crazy about the new system. Figure skating, which used to judge on a perfect 6.0 scale, has also changed to a more complicated system. Conner said he had a recent conversation with figure skating broadcast analyst Dick Button.
“He agreed that figure skating to some extent and gymnastics to a higher extent has lost something very crucial to our identity and at a time when a lot of sports are getting squeezed out of the public eye,” Conner said. “Now we have a bunch of numbers that mean very little to most fans. What’s 16.250? Good? Bad? It’s just a number.”
Conner said he received three 10s in his career. “All in 1984. One on my compulsory parallel bar routine, one on my final routine, one in team competition where I just cold-cocked the landing. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think it often but man, did I stick that one.’ ”
Alicia Sacramone, a member of the 2008 U.S. women’s team, said most current gymnasts don’t have enough experience with the 10-model scoring to miss it terribly.
“I guess it would have been cool to get one,” she said. “I know fans still ask me if I’m going to get a 10 on my vault. They seem disappointed when I tell them there is no such thing.”