Judges. Gymnastics fans love to hate them even though arguing over scores and rankings is half the fun of being a fan of this weird and wonderful sport. I mean, what would we even talk about if we weren’t still arguing about the results of the women’s all-around competition at the 1992 Olympics? (Fight it out in the comments or on Twitter if you must.)
But judges are fans too! Meet Yazaira Cabrera-Dávila, the women’s technical director for the Puerto Rico Gymnastics Federation (FPG). Unlike many judges who are former gymnasts, Cabrera-Dávila’s involvement in gymnastics started on the outside looking in, with fandom first before eventually progressing to a seat on the panel.
After this year’s world championships in Stuttgart, I had some bones to pick with the judging and evaluation of certain skills by the women’s technical committee so I decided to reach out to Cabrera-Dávila with my gripes. I asked her if I could send her a few questions for this newsletter and she graciously agreed. (This is actually the second time that she has helped me out. The first was back in 2016 when I was working on a script about vault judging for a Slate video. Cabrera-Dávila provided some technical expertise so I wouldn’t end up sounding stupid.)
Speaking of bones to pick with judges, how did the judges not give this routine from Yang Bo a 10 in 1989? One of the best beam routines of all-time.
Below is our email Q&A exchange, very lightly edited for clarity.
Dvora Meyers: How did you get involved with gymnastics? Are you a former gymnast? Coach? Or did you take some other path into this crazy, beautiful sport?
Yazaira Cabrera-Dávila: I never did gymnastics in a club, only in my backyard. I was always a fan of the sport. I was a volunteer for the 1996 Worlds in Puerto Rico. I had a blast during that competition. At the time (1999), I was studying biology in the university and decided to take gymnastics as an elective class. Part of the class requirements was to observe a real gym class in a club. I went to a club and could not just observe—I helped the coach with her class. The gym owner was observing me and offered me a job coaching rec [recreational] gymnastics classes. At the time I was working at the university library so I was excited to be able to work in gymnastics.
DM: Can you tell me a little about how you came to judging? What appealed to you about approaching gymnastics that way?
YCD: I started attending coaches clinics in Puerto Rico and took a couple of coaches courses. In 2001, we had a USAG [USA Gymnastics] workshop with the new compulsory routines in Puerto Rico. The workshop included a judges course and I decided to take the judges exam just as a challenge. After that, I attended UF (Go Gators!) for my Master’s degree. When I returned to Puerto Rico in 2004, I decided to keep judging as well, as it was an additional source of income. In 2006, we were going to have a FIG Brevet course in PUR for the first time ever. (Before that, our judges always had to travel to take the FIG course.) I was not even a USAG optional level judge at the time. I talked to our WAG [women’s artistic gymnastics] Tech Director at the time. I promised her that I would study hard for the FIG course if she would let me take it... and I did! For two months I studied everything: learning the value of elements, the symbols, the deductions...The course came and I passed!
DM: I know you're on social media and see at least some of the conversation that the gymternet has about judging. What, in your opinion, do uber fans get right about judging? What do we get wrong?
YCD: I also started as a fan, actually as a "gym groupie"! I think that some uber fans forget that judges are also in gymnastics because they love the sport. Nobody takes on FIG judging to make money or because they want to punish gymnasts. Most judges were gymnasts, coaches or were somewhat involved with the sport before they took on judging. (I am an exception.) I have been on both sides and honestly, it is really stressful to be in the judge's seat. When I am not judging, I watch meets with a fan perspective. I am not judging every routine; I just enjoy it. Sometimes I do not agree with the scores that I see so I will rewatch a routine and judge it. Most times, I am close to the score given, [though] sometimes not. Judges in big meets are always evaluated, so there is the stress that you do not want to receive a bad evaluation or worse—sanction or expulsion. I think this is a factor in the "boxing" of the scores. Uber fans have the chance to watch a routine on video several times; a judge watches live, just the one time...There are a lot of "in the moment" decisions that have to be taken quickly...and sometimes we make mistakes.
DM: A judge once told me that if I wanted to be an E panel judge, all I had to do was award between an 8.4-8.8 execution score for a hit routine and between a 7.7-8.1 for a routine with a fall, excluding vault. He was joking but also making a point—that execution scores tend to clump together regardless of what the gymnast actually does and how well—or how poorly—she does it. Do you see that kind of problem in E scores, that perhaps the judges aren't using all of the tools at their disposal in order to better differentiate between routines?
YCD: I use all my deductions when I am judging. At the end, when I add everything up, sometimes you realize that it is a bit high or low and make adjustments. We are always told to just give the score that we came up [with]. I cannot deny that a judge might have a score, and think that he or she will be out of range and change it. It is not what we are told to do, but it happens. Judges are evaluated, and the farther away that they are from the average score affects that evaluation.
DM: Speaking of deductions, at worlds I was personally concerned about the execution scores on vault. In my non-expert opinion, it felt like some gymnasts were scoring a little too close to Simone Biles on the event in terms of E scores. As we all know, save for landing deductions, Biles has excellent execution on this event. Do you think that the judges have to be more aggressive on taking deductions on vault, especially since it's only one skill?
YCD: I saw that vault at home and I had 0.2 in deductions. [She is referring to Biles’ Amanar, the second vault in the video.] I talked to judges that saw it from the stands also had 0.2. So yes, they need to really differentiate great execution from good execution.
DM: Another judge one time commented to me about why it sometimes feels like better gymnasts are more harshly deducted than weaker gymnasts. He said something along the lines of, the better the gymnast, the more you're able to see the small things because you're not busy deducting for the big things. But with a weaker gymnast, there are so many mistakes and so much to deduct that you tend to miss the smaller things. Would you agree with that?
YCD: There might be some truth in that statement. An example: a Jaeger on uneven bars. If a gymnast just flexes her feet and has a bit of bent elbows, those two deductions are easily taken. If a gymnast has bent elbows, flexed feet, lack of height, under rotation, bent knees...All those deductions sometimes are difficult to see all at once.
DM: In your opinion, which skills in the Women's Code of Points are overvalued? And which ones are undervalued?
YCD: Overvalued: Jump to candlestick mount on beam
Undervalued: Double double dismount on beam, full in piked and tucked have the same value on floor.
DM: Do you find that the artistry deduction is taken when it's called for?
YCD: I feel that sometimes the leotard of the gymnast influences the artistry deductions. There are gymnasts that may not have a lot of difficulty but have a great presentation on floor exercise or balance beam. Sometimes, because they are from a "weak" country, they get more penalties than if she was from a "strong" country. I do not want to be disrespectful to her, but if [MyKayla] Skinner was from Bolivia or Nigeria, she would have more deductions!
DM: There was so much talk about the new Fujitsu judging system that was being tested in Stuttgart. Do you think gymnastics will ever fully move away from human judging or will we always need people to help determine rankings in the sport?
YCD: I like the idea of computers assisting with judging. There are components of the evaluation that would be more accurate with sensors; angles, height, precision of twisting; elbow, knee and foot extension. I think that there should be a combination of both like they use in halfpipe snowboarding, for example. On balance beam and floor exercise, the artistic presentation is something that I do not think a computer is able to evaluate, at least [not] right now.
Photo courtesy of Yazaira Cabrera-Dávila