Passionate sports fans cannot resist offering their opinion when it comes to the outcomes of their favorite teams. When their team doesn’t win, fans are quick to blame the judges, accusing them of bias or error. However, how often is there truth behind these accusations?
The answer to this question is complex. It’s safe to assert that bias can affect competitions at any level. Despite that, bias is often unconscious, making it hard to determine whether judges are truly to blame. Sports such as gymnastics, diving, and figure skating are particularly affected due to the fact that judges entirely dictate the score athletes receive, unlike umpires or referees, who simply enforce rules. In these sports, technical skills are assigned a base value, and points can be added based on execution. Though this scoring system is well developed, it is not immune to bias.
Research has shown that Olympic judges have favored athletes of their same nationality and given lower scores to the opposition. This phenomenon is particularly relevant with the conclusion of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in China. At the onset of the games, controversy regarding judging arose. Participants and viewers were outraged that Chinese Judge Huang Fen was allowed to return as a technical judge after being found guilty of giving a Chinese figure skating pair unreasonably high scores during the 2018 Olympics, contributing to their silver medal win.
Biased judging can occur at all levels of competition. Berkeley High School (BHS) junior and gymnast Stella Wellborn has experienced biased judging in the past. “At one of the last meets I competed in, my team was doing really well on beam. We had barely any wobbles and no falls, but we all got low eights for our scores. But a team we were competing against [made] a lot of mistakes, and some even fell, but they all received high nines,” said Wellborn.
While crooked judges can slip through the cracks, most judges take their responsibilities seriously. “We are told to judge impartially and I believe most of the judges do their best to carry that out,” said Lisa Berahovich, an National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) gymnastics judge. The most prevalent bias that impacts judging is actually unconscious rather than active. One example of unconscious bias is reputation, which may cause judges to score athletes or teams higher when they have an impressive reputation. A study done by Henning Plessner, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Heidelberg, found that something as insignificant as the order in which athletes perform — such as last versus first — could impact their score.
Since implicit bias cannot be eliminated, certain regulations imposed on judges aim to reduce overt prejudice. In some competitions, the highest and lowest scores are dropped and the remaining scores are averaged for the final judging result. Derek Douglas, head diving coach at BHS, believes that this policy successfully mitigates error. “When I am judging and I mess up … by scoring too high or low, it makes me feel better that it may be dropped,” said Douglas.
It’s important to understand human bias that can impact who comes out on top while also acknowledging the difficulty of judging. As long as humans are judges, error will exist, and therefore regulations must act as a balancing measure to ensure the fairest competition possible.