Simone Biles utterly demolished everyone else in women’s gymnastics at the Rio Olympics on Tuesday. How do we know? Because the judges said so.
But what makes them qualified to judge? And, who are those people, anyway?
Judges are members of respective International Sports Federations, which are non-governmental organisations recognised by the International Olympic Committee for being in charge of a sport on an international level.
The federation for soccer, for example, is Fédération Internationale de Football Association (better known as FIFA). For gymnastics, it’s the International Federation of Gymnastics.
Those federations are in charge of nominating the judges, referees, and technical officials for their respective sports. The International Olympic Committee then chooses whether to accept the nominations or not.
Each federation has its own process for choosing judges. It makes sense — the people involved with each sport know the most about those sports — but the diffusion of responsibility also makes it hard to catch bias, cheating, or corruption.
For an example of such corruption, look no further than the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, where a French figure skating judge said she was pressured by the head of the French skating organisation to vote for the Russian team, costing the Canadian team the gold medal until the decision was later reversed.
The Olympics has different ways to deal with bias and cheating from judges, even if none of them are perfect. Gymnastics, for example, throws out the highest and lowest scores, under the assumption that the most extreme scores will be the most biased ones. Other sports are more straightforward to judge. If you swim fastest, you win the swimming race.
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