Lessons on human behavior from the Sydney Olympics

Today 17 world class gymnasts did miserably on the vaulting horse during the all-round section of the womens gymnastics in the Olympic games here in Sydney.

The horse had been set 5cm (2 inches) too low. This was only discovered after the second rotation had ended, when more than half of the gymnasts had already done their vault, most doing miserably, some falling on their butts, on their bellies or simply flying off when they should have performed brilliantly.

As a result of this, many great gymnasts were disillusioned and lost confidence in themselves. Svetlana Khorkina, the crowd favourite for a gold medal and reigning world champion in the uneven bars was so shaken that she fell off during her routine on the assymetric bars and finished 11th*. Elise Ray slipped and fell off the balance beam.

What irks me is how the officials managed to allow so many gymnasts to stumble so badly before checking the equipment. The automatic reaction from everyone concerned was that it must have been a fluke or that the pressure was getting to these girls.

"... they were dropping like flies and nobody could figure what was the problem on vault."
Why did it take so long before the problem was identified as being the equipment rather than the humans involved?

Did the officials think the ones who slipped were just uncoordinated or unlucky? Did the other gymnasts who had not yet had their turn also think so? These were women who had trained for years to represent their country and nobody thought that it was weird that they were all performing worse on this vault than expected?

Worse still, some of these same gymnasts had performed the exact same vault several days earlier during the team event and had performed admirably well. Why didn't the danger bells go off in the officials heads when they started dropping like flies?

Strangely enough, I can relate to this incident. Not on the same scale as the Olympic games, of course, but significant nonetheless to my life. About seven years ago, when I first took the driving tests for obtaining a driver's license, I managed to somehow fail the multiple choice exam on road safety, road signs and driving rules. This was preposterous, of course, as the questions were ridiculously easy and it would have take either someone with language problems to not understand the questions or some serious cognitive impairment not to be able to choose the correct options. In fact, the sample paper I had a gander at before the actual exam was so simple that I refused to study for the exam.

The passing mark was 47 right answers out of 50 questions. I got back a result of 7. My parents were shocked and questioned why I did not study for the paper. Friends of my parents tried to calm me saying that I might have misunderstood the questions. Personally, settling down after a few minutes of shock, I figured that they must have marked my (multiple choice, A/B/C/D) answers against a different wrong set of questions (the exam questions are different depending on which set of questions you got, ranging from set A to set Z and possibly beyond).

I protested that this was the most likely cause of my low score. That it was unthinkable that I could score anywhere near that low for such a simple paper. My parents' friends continued to tell me to take the book and study and try again soon. Even my parents did not come to my side immediately but instead scolded me for a short period.

To cut a long story short, I stuck to my guns and they retrieved my answers and marked it against the question sets adjacent to what they had done before (I think they marked my answers against set S originally and they remarked it against set R and set T) ... and lo and behold ... I scored 49 out of 50 against one of the other question sets. They had stuffed up on recording which question paper I had been given.

I think the point I am trying to make here is that there is a human over-tendency to blame the person under pressure when something stuffs up. More consideration should always be taken when someone does not perform as well as should be expected.

More so when several world class gymnasts do not perform as expected. On the same routine on the same vault.

Apologies were offered and a re-vault was offered to all gymnasts who were affected before the error was discovered. By then, some had already done other routines, having been shaken by their performance on the vault. I think the least the officials should have done was to offer a restart of the entire evening, to put everyone back on equal footing. This was not done, to the benefit of all the other gymnasts who had not yet gotten to the vault in their rotation yet.

Moral of the story? Listen and see - do not ignore the bloody obvious.

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* Update: Svetlana Khorkina has gone on to win a gold medal in the individual event for the uneven bars in the Sydney 2000 Olympics.