Of all the strange things that happened at the men's team gymnastic finals last night, perhaps the strangest was the sight of a Japanese coach approaching the judges while holding a stack of cash (American $100 bills) while arguing that they had gotten a decisive call wrong. As the competition wrapped up, the British team thought they'd won an astounding silver medal, only to have it taken away minutes later following the appeal by the Japanese team delegation. It seems there was some sort of scoring error that the judges corrected after viewing playback of Kohei Uchimura's dismount from the pommel horse. These things have happened before and they're always surprising, but for the viewer at home, seeing a stack of hundies involved was, as Mitt Romney would say, disconcerting. Especially when Olympic judges do not have a perfect ethics record. Turns out, though, this money exchange was all on the up and up.
As NBC commentators explained last night, the money is part of a new international set of rules, presumably from both the FIG (International Gymnastics Federation) and the IOC. Cash must be submitted with an appeal and if the appeal is deemed valid the money is returned. If it's not valid, the money goes ... somewhere. It's not exactly clear whether the money goes to the sport federation or the Olympics committee, or what happens to it. (First round's on the gymnast judges at the pub?) This is supposedly to prevent teams from filing frivolous challenges to judging. So while it looked pretty unseemly, it was apparently legit, and as Yahoo's Maggie Hendricks explained last night, a smart team will come armed with the money ($500?) just in case. Still though, it looks kinda bad, doesn't it?
There was some similar drama yesterday in women's epee fencing, when South Korea's Shin Lam sat weeping on the piste while she waited for her delegation to iron out a controversy. She had won her bout and was celebrating moving on to the gold medal round when the judges moved the clock back a second, giving her opponent time to get in a winning touch. Her coach complained, and the crowd apparently reacted badly when they learned that money was being exchanged as part of the appeal. Meanwhile poor Shin sat on the piste for quite a long time, not wanting to leave the arena, fearing it would mean she was conceding defeat. Everything was delayed until it was decided that she had indeed lost the match and would be competing for bronze instead of gold.
There's also word that the appeal money showed up at an Indian boxing match, which is where the $500 figure comes from, and the sudden prominence of the new rule is provoking some people to wonder how fair it really is. Sure the wealthier nations don't care about a few hundred bucks, but some of the tinier countries barely have any competitors and even less money. They're expected to fork over the same lump of cash if they think something unfair has happened? It doesn't exactly seem reasonable, and certainly feels a little garish for a sporting event that's supposed to be all about dignity and respectability and the pureness of sport. Of course the rampant brand sponsorship and all that gross stuff has already done damage to the Olympics' and the IOC's prestigious reputation, but seeing a team delegate literally waving cash in front of the judges is a far more tangible and viscerally unpleasant visual than the vague idea of McDonald's handing the IOC sacks of money in some shadowy boardroom somewhere.
We understand that appeals must be done from time to time, but boy doesn't it suck the thrill out of everything? It would have been exciting to see the British men simply win bronze and be happy with that. But instead we had to watch them celebrate silver and then glumly accept bronze. And sure it seems to be that there was indeed a mistake in Uchimura's scoring, so it is ultimately good that it was corrected, but sometimes all the microscopic nitpicking that the myriad new technologies make possible saps the experience of some of its humanity. Though you could of course argue that this is a case of technology correcting a human error, not the other way around. This is all to say we're happy for Japan but also bummed for the Brits. We're glad Shin's opponent got her due, but sad that Shin had to go through that. Though, we're definitely not going to get used to all that money-waving any time soon. Hopefully we won't have to see it again. The more errors there are in these games, the less sweeping and conclusive they feel. Yeah, yeah, error is the stark reality and we should be able to face it, but it's so much more exciting to believe in the god-like finality and infallibility of the Olympics, as if the medals were bestowed by those mountain-dwelling deities themselves. And what do gods need with money?
[Top image via Business Insider; inset by Reuters/Adrees Latif]