If you watched the men's gymnastics competition in primetime on NBC on Monday night, you probably saw a Japanese gymnastics coach hand over a form and a $100 bill, then saw Japan's score get bumped up so that the country won silver. "Cheaters!" you may have thought to yourself. "The Olympics are the shadiest thing ever!"
It's more complicated than that. And no, Japan was not bribing the judges.
Yahoo!'s Maggie Hendricks, a veteran of the gymnastics beat, explained the cash requirement last night as the drama unfolded late in primetime and Twitter roiled:
The money is there to make sure teams don't make capricious challenges.— Maggie Hendricks (@maggiehendricks) July 31, 2012
A smart national governing body sends their team with an envelope of cash for this very reason.— Maggie Hendricks (@maggiehendricks) July 31, 2012
Also remember judges decisions aren't appeal able. Timing, start values, etc. much like not everything in football can be challenged.— Maggie Hendricks (@maggiehendricks) July 31, 2012
And, in this case, as Hendricks explained, the money started an appeal of Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura's score on the pommel horse. That appeal ended with the start value of Uchimura's routine getting bumped up 0.700 points, enough to vault Japan past Ukraine and Great Britain for silver.
But, well, handing over money looks bad:
The solution here is to consider this not as a payment or bribe for extra consideration, but as a deposit on the judging process that proves a challenge is serious. There's even an analogue in American sports for the process, as Hendricks hints at and a discussion on GymnasticsCoaching.com notes: NFL coaches throw challenge flags and essentially deposit a timeout on each challenge, getting it refunded if the challenge is upheld and a call gets reversed.
You could be forgiven for thinking the gymnastics world doesn't do the same, because rules are not exactly transparent — go ahead, try to find the specific rule on the FIG website — but it's also a fairly reasonable expectation that the Japanese got their crisp Ben Franklin portrait back after their appeal was accepted simply because of the apparent impropriety. And Hendricks notes that the bill was assuredly returned.
So what did we see last night? The Japanese handed over a refundable deposit to correct a clerical error, not a subjective judging decision, and, because their appeal was legitimate, they were eventually refunded. It's not like paying off the cop to wipe a DUI off a record; it's getting your misspelled name rectified on your driver's license at the DMV.
You know, if the DMV gave refunds.