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How The 'Perfect 10' Became A Thing Of The Past In Gymnastics

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's talk Olympics picks now. Today, young women compete in San Jose, Calif. for the chance to represent the USA in one of the most popular sports of the Summer Games, Women's Gymnastics. The drama, artistry and strength of these young athletes have drawn spectators to the sport for years, hoping to catch an historic bars routine, a record breaking vault.

But what observers outside the sport might not know is that the rules of the sport, rather the way it's scored are changing. A score of 10 was, well, perfect. You couldn't get any higher than that. But now with an open-ended scoring system that rewards daring and risk, 10 is no longer the benchmark of success. Dvora Meyers has a new book out which describes all of this, including the history and past controversies in the sport. It's called "The End Of The Perfect 10: The Making And Breaking Of Gymnastics' Top Score - From Nadia To Now." And Dvora Meyers is with us now from NPR New York.

Welcome thanks so much for joining us.

DVORA MEYERS: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So let's just start with a piece of that subtitle from the book "From Nadia To Now." We're talking about Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who made history in Montreal in 1976 on the uneven bars. Let me just play a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Oh, look at that amplitude. Oh. She is really moving well. Another handstand - look at that, right to the handstand.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: (Unintelligible) Beautiful and the crowd loves it.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And it is...

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: A perfect 10.

MARTIN: Tell us what that moment meant for gymnastics. First of all, what made it a, quote, unquote, "perfect 10" - thing one. And then

MARTIN: in a minute we'll talk about what impact that had on the sport.

MEYERS: That routine - it was a compulsory exercise, which means that every single gymnast in the competition was doing that exact routine. I think if you sat through all of the competition in Montreal - the compulsory round - you have seen that routine 86 times. But she just did it so much better than everyone else that she was awarded a 10.

MARTIN: Do you think that the 10 changed the sport?

MEYERS: I wouldn't say that it changed the training at all, but the 10, obviously, made the sport so much more popular than it had ever been before and became this global symbol of perfection. It became a brand. You know, in the early 90s, she appeared on a billboard in Times Square Jockey for her 10 years of a perfect fit on a perfect 10. Like, she still to this day represents some sort of physical perfection.

But the sport itself, I don't think the 10 changed the way gymnastics functioned as a sport.

MARTIN: Do you think it brought more people into the sport?

MEYERS: Absolutely. Nadia and her predecessor, I mean - her - the first global superstar which was Olga Korbut were arguably more popular in the West than they were in their native countries and had a greater impact because after Olga and then four years later after Nadia, you see gym memberships skyrocket. A lot of young girls want to be involved in gymnastics now.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about the scoring. You say that one of the things that's happened, though, is that even when a routine sort of does look perfect, I mean - for example, McKayla Maroney's vault in London during the last games, it gets this long score of nine point something, getting closer and closer to the 10, but not quite reaching it. Why is that?

MEYERS: This was a really interesting conversation I had with some judges because I think when you're seeing the audience and you see this amazing vault and your gut reaction is give it a 10. It's perfect. And it really did deserve a 10. But talking to judges you sort of figure out why it didn't get one.

And it's because judges aren't sitting in the audience and just reacting, having a gut reaction to what they see. They are not even charged with looking at the vault as a package, right? There's one judge who makes sure that they do the vault that they're supposed to do. And the other judges are there to take deductions. And I feel like if your job is to take deductions, you find deductions to take. That is your job.

And so they found, you know, I imagine - I've looked at the vault so many times, I imagine it's the separation of her legs slightly on the preflight and that's probably the only deduction in the whole vault.

MARTIN: So how do people feel about this new system? I mean, I'm sensing, though, that viewers don't like it. The audience kind of wants the emotional satisfaction, if you would, of a 10. What are you hearing?

MEYERS: I know a lot of gymnastics fans and a lot of them actually really like this system. It makes more intuitive sense at least. So you at the '92 Olympics, for instance, a full-twisting vault was worth as much as a double-twisting vault. So if you took a step on your double-twisting vault, you would lose to a gymnast who had stuck a full-twisting vault. And that doesn't really make much sense.

MARTIN: So the new system is designed not just to look for error, but to reward risk...

MEYERS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...To reward daring - right? - and boldness, right? So for people watching the upcoming games, what should we be looking for?

MEYERS: You should be looking for some astounding acrobatics, especially from a young woman that everyone has heard a lot about already named Simone Biles. She is, I think, the paragon of what the open-ended scoring system is about, someone who can do you incredible difficulty, but does it with such ease of execution. Like she, you know - a lot of people - the complaints a lot people have about the scoring system is that it incentivizes risk. It pushes people to do things that are beyond their abilities, perhaps. And so there's a lot of falls, and there's mistakes.

But she's this rare specimen who can do this high level of difficulty and do it with such complete mastery. So you should be looking out for her doing things that are going to blow your mind, and she's going to make it look like it's a walk in the park.

MARTIN: That's Dvora Meyers. Her new book is called "The End Of The Perfect 10," and she was with us from NPR New York. Dvora, thanks so much for joining us.

MEYERS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.