Recently, fellow PopCult blogger Erica Marcus bemoaned the demise of the straightforward 10-point judging system in gymnastics, making the sport less dramatic for the viewer at home. I agree — but at least with gymnastics an unschooled eye can see when the gymnast has performed with grace and confidence and avoided awkward mistakes. You don’t need to be an Olympic judge to recognize a shaky performance.
Likewise with so many of the most popular events of the summer games — swimming, diving, track, etc. — the drama is clear-cut and stark, the triumphs instantaneous and self-evident. Who crossed the finish line first? Who dove into the pool cleanly, with minimum splash? When Usain Bolt wins the 100-meter and 200-meter races, you instinctually cheer, because there isn’t a human alive who couldn’t recognize his victory. It’s primal.
Freestyle wrestling, by contrast, is just bewildering for the nonfan. This afternoon I settled in to watch the quarterfinal competition. Now there is something pleasingly Olympic about wrestling. It reeks of antiquity, and we might be watching two grapplers come to life off an ancient Greek vase. Wikipedia tells us that wrestling has been an Olympic event since at least the Olympiad of 704 B.C. The sport has a pedigree.
But this satisfaction quickly gave way to bewilderment. With all the twists and reversals it was difficult to tell who was thrashing whom. How on earth were the points being scored? It was like watching a foreign film without subtitles. True, the NBC commentators kept explaining what was going on, but I couldn’t relate it to what I was seeing on-screen.
Now maybe I’m just dim. But the sport does seem to have a certain amount of confusion built in. And during the quarterfinals of the men’s freestyle 185 lb. class, it wasn’t just me. American Jake Herbert was going head to head against Sharif Sharikov of Azerbaijan. (Just as the Jamaicans rule the track events, the Azerbaijanis seem to have a headlock on wrestling.) During the match there ensued what one commentator called a "rolling scramble," and when it was over, no one seemed to agree on what had happened and what the score was. The judges watched a replay, and frankly, they looked as confused as I felt. But they ruled that the score was 6-0, Sharikov. What?!
The U.S. coach, Zeke Jones, bounded out onto the mat to object. He wound up being handed a yellow card by a ref, and that at least was unambiguous: not good. The judges held to their score, and Sharikov claimed a spot in the semifinals. (He went on to win the gold medal in his weight class.) Jake Herbert and Coach Jones didn’t look too happy, and I wasn't too satisfied either. Maybe I just need to watch more wrestling to get the hang of it. But with the freestyle competition over in London, I guess I’ll just set myself an alert for the 2016 games.