The Olympics are upon us, a year late and probably many dollars short. There will be no cheering in the stands, because the stadiums will be empty. All your favorite Olympic sports will be on display, even if some of your favorite athletes won’t be, disqualified by an adverse drug or COVID test. There will likely be grumbling about some of the color commentary and the officiating, because there always is.
Some sports can more easily be objectively judged — the track events, for example. First to cross the finish line wins. It’s that simple. There is not a lot of discretion or opinion involved in picking the victor. There might be some questions about a false start or a close finish, but the camera will almost always settle the issue without controversy. Certain team sports are more susceptible to hijacking by bad officiating — penalties are often judgment calls and bad calls can alter the outcome of a game. Still, the victor in basketball or in soccer is determined by who scores the most baskets or goals, respectively, which is not objectively in dispute even if there is some awful refereeing along the way.
In other sports, though, subjectivity is the hallmark of the competition. In Olympic gymnastics and diving, for example, where there are no goals or baskets to easily tabulate, judges must employ their subjective discretion to evaluate the execution and artistry of each performance. Often there is consensus about the excellence or mediocrity of a routine or a dive, and there is a scoring system that calls for point-deductions for certain mistakes. But in close cases, there is no photo that can definitively settle the matter. The final result is determined by fallible human judges. And at the Olympics, where national pride is on the line, there has long been a worry about national bias.