Simone Biles is, by all reasonable accounts, the best female gymnast of all time. She is so much better than the rest of the field, in fact, that in order not to win the upcoming Olympics in Rio, she wouldn’t just have to fall. She’d have to pull a Preacher and explode halfway through her bar set.
Biles’ floor exercise routine, for example, is so good that not only is her half-out double layout named after her in the gymnastics Bible, the vaunted Code of Points—she launches into that insanely difficult skill on her second tumbling pass, because, oh, hey, she’s got a trick that’s even harder to do first. (It’s a double layout with a full twist in the second flip, and it’s spectacular.)
The difficulty of Biles’ routine is without compare, and when she “hits” (gym code for “does every skill in her routine the best she ever has”), her execution is flawless.
So, she’s a near certainty to follow in the footsteps of, say, Olympic legend Nadia Comaneci and score a perfect 10 in Rio, right? Wrong. If you can remember all the way back to the more innocent days of 2012, you might recall McKayla Maroney, who sulked famously on the silver-medal stand after a surprise butt-plant during the event finals. Earlier that week in the team competition, however, she’d performed a two-and-a-half twisting Yurchenko the very best it had ever been done, by any gymnast, male or female:
Her score was a … 16.233.
Meanwhile, four years prior, Nastia Liukin clinched the all-around gold in Beijing after a triumphant floor routine that caused Béla Károlyi to commit first-degree assault on Bob Costas—with a score of … 15.525. What?
How can anyone who doesn’t have dual master’s degrees in gymnastics and math even tell who’s going to win? Why can a gymnast such as Simone Biles conceivably fall down in Rio and still win gold? It’s actually been 12 years since the gymnastics scoring system turned indecipherable, but I guarantee you that during the gymnastics competition this summer, the millions of viewers who tune in to the marquee sport will still be wondering: What the hell happened to the perfect 10? The answers—long, complex ones, requiring a meticulous charting of gymnastics history from Olga Korbut’s heyday in the early 1970s to the current seemingly unstoppable domination of the American women’s squad—are readily manifest in The End of the Perfect 10, a magisterial new book from Slate contributor Dvora Meyers.
The perfect 10 was a “brand,” according to veteran University of Utah coach Greg Marsden, one so powerful that “you could not go out and get a marketing firm and pay them one hundred million dollars” to replicate it. “You don’t walk away from that brand. That was the stupidest thing we ever did.” (Can you imagine Don Jon calling Scarlett Johansson a “16.223”?) Meyers’ greatest difficulty—one that’s got to be worth at least a 16.233—is to walk readers who agree with Marsden, many of whom will be only casually familiar with gymnastics, through the lengthy, agonizing decision to kill the 10.
The first surprise in The End of the Perfect 10 is that even the most famous 10 of all time wasn’t truly perfect. Comaneci’s perfect uneven bars routine, which momentarily flummoxed the Montreal Olympics’ three-digit scoreboard, displaying a “1.00,” had a mistake.
If you look closely at the footage, you’ll see Nadia had the minutest slide forward on her landing. What gives? Meyers explains—with the help of countless interviews with officials, coaches, and Comaneci herself—that Nadia earned those 10s because she was just so much more perfect, so to speak, than the other gymnasts who’d gone before.
Comaneci demonstrated a technical perfection that had heretofore not been seen in the sport. And to that, she added an ease of performance. Comaneci gave the impression that not only could she do the extremely difficult skill perfectly but also that she could do it repeatedly without error. Her perfection was not spectacular—it was mundane.
But then, Meyers writes, thanks both to new precedent and a long-suspected judging bias that inflated Soviet gymnasts’ scores, elite international gymnastics fell prey to, well, grade inflation. The 1988 Olympics and 1989 World Championships handed out so many 10s you’d think they were trying to coin their own metric system. For example, Belarusian icon Svetlana Boginskaya is a goddess, but she clearly parted her legs on her full-in double-back somersault in this stunning avant-garde floor routine from the 1989 World Championships. That exercise got a 10, though, because Boginskaya’s artistry was unparalleled, better even than that of the other Soviets—and because the judges knew how much better she had to be to rotate that double flip with a frame nearing 5-foot-5.
So what choice did the judges have? With every elite athlete’s score capped at 10, what was left to distinguish a technically perfect routine full of relatively “safe” elements that met minimum requirements from a truly spectacular one that pushed the boundaries of the sport? What does one do when Soviet legend Valeri Liukin (Nastia’s father) hits a triple somersault on floor for the first time in international competition? How to reward the “elites among the elites,” those who “performed routines worth more than ten points,” but couldn’t get credit for many of their skills? Well, you reward them by forgiving the tiny errors that come as a price for pushing the sport past its limits.
As the faults in the scoring system continue to show, Meyers weaves in the story of a mild-mannered Canadian named Hardy Fink—an experienced judge who also happened to be a mathematical genius—tinkering with a new sort of Code of Points, an open-ended system that allowed one score for execution (out of, yes, 10), and a completely different score based upon the difficulty of the skills performed in a routine. (Maroney’s difficulty score for that legendary vault, for example, was a 6.5.) It sounded pretty reasonable to Fink—but for years, he was laughed out of the room.
Until, that is, Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov’s high-bar score caused the audience to boo for 10 straight minutes at the 2004 Sydney Games, after a blindingly difficult routine garnered a mere 9.725. But the score wasn’t truly unjust, under the rules as they stood. “Nemov performed a crowd-pleasing style of gymnastics,” Meyers explains. “His routine was chock full of spectacular release moves—four of which were performed consecutively. This is the kind of difficulty that is comprehensible to an audience. Swing, let go, flip, regrasp.” It was also the kind of gymnastics that, under Fink’s unpopular proposed code, could have used its difficulty to make up for the slight form breaks—breaks that Nemov could have avoided if he’d played it safe with bare-minimum skills that didn’t challenge him. The system was unjust because it favored the unambitious.
Finally, in 2006, propelled in part by the scoring scandal in Sydney, elite-level gymnastics adopted an open-ended system, and once-every-four-years gymnastics fans weren’t the only ones scratching their heads. Once, Meyers writes, “everyone understood that the closer a gymnast scored to 10, the better he or she had performed.” But now, “gymnasts were receiving marks like 13.667 or 14.825, and you had no way of knowing if these were good or bad scores.” Even “über-fan” Meyers took years to learn to interpret the new scores, so what hope do viewers who only watch gymnastics at the Olympics have?
Meyers clearly lays out the permanent and dramatic changes the open-ended code has brought—or hastened—to the sport. Simone Biles, for example, is almost the prototypical athlete of the new code: At 19, she’s a good measure older than the prepubescent children who dominated the sport after Nadia (and especially in the 1990s); one look at both her otherworldly physical condition and her style confirms that she’s both many measures stronger than, say, flea-sized 1992 darling Tatiana Gutsu. And, thanks in large part to the Károlyi-branded style of American “power” gymnasts, she and her teammates pay not the slightest mind to the balletic drama that the Bolshoi-influenced Eastern Bloc once made standard.
Because the new code favors difficulty above all else, countries that have long struggled on one event but made up the deficit on others—such as Romania and its perpetual nemesis, the uneven bars—haven’t been able to catch up. This year, the home country of Nadia Comaneci did not qualify a women’s gymnastics team.
World-class gymnastics, Meyers makes clear, can’t have the same scoring system in place in Nadia’s time. Why would it? It’s a totally different sport, in a totally different world. “The 10 is not a time machine,” Meyers writes. “It won’t make the once-great nations—Romania and Russia—great again, because the material conditions and infrastructure that helped those countries excel have eroded since the fall of Communism across Eastern Europe.”
The End of the Perfect 10 is so exhaustively researched, its narrative so thoughtfully woven, its intellectual commitment so present (in a sport whose penchant for removing young girls from school reflects its distaste for intellectual inquiry—Al Trautwig, I’m looking at you), that despite a few tiny missteps—chapters about the Károlyis that deviate far from the scoring-system narrative, for example)—it still blows the lid off any book of its kind. Granted, Meyers is in a genre largely populated by either frilly ghostwritten biography or gritty tell-all memoir—but all the more reason to treasure this, the Simone Biles of gymnastics books. If only there were some sort of easily recognizable metric I could assign it that would immediately signify how good it is.
The End of the Perfect 10 by Dvora Meyers. Touchstone.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.