Laser Gymnastics Judges? Laser Gymnastics Judges

Fujitsu's 3-D laser technology could eliminate subjective judging in gymnastics and other performance sports

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
May 20, 2016 at 1:59 PM ET

The abilities of the modern athlete continue to outpace officiating’s naked eye. Tennis players smashing serves and volley with increasing velocity led first to the fault-detecting Cyclops and now the all-line judging Hawkeye. Track and swimming use electronic timing. Nearly every sport now has some degree of instant replay. A common baseball catchphrase is “Robot Umps.”

And now gymnastics could move to a fully automated scoring system, or so boasts the Japan Gymnastics Association and Fujitsu Laboratories. How is this possible? Cue Dr. Evil:

Fujitsu will further develop its 3D laser sensors and 3D data processing technologies, which will be capable, they say, of recognizing joint position and technique.

With the extraordinarily rapid advance of gymnastic techniques, such as with the number of twists, there are times when it is difficult to accurately judge and score a performance with the naked eye. As a result, judges face an escalating burden of making accurate split-second scoring decisions. In addition to judgements made through visual observation, the use of ICT to capture a gymnast’s movements, which are then analyzed as numerical data, could work to support more accurate scoring.

Sports that require some degree of subjective judging—gymnastics, figure skating, diving—have long been plagued by accusations of bias, so of course a truly objective scoring system would be a major improvement. (Fujitsu hopes there can be a future application to figure skating, too, reports the Japan Times.) One study published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal reported that “the best international judges reported approximately 40% of true errors” in rhythmic gymnastics.

Further, the Wall Street Journal cited a study indicating that 10 of 17 judges in a 2009 study favored their own country’s divers. Other research, as relayed by Slate, indicated that those performing later in the competition tended to receive better scores. Four judges received bans for biased judging after the 2013 world championships.

Even a laser-guided system probably won’t stop complaints, of course, because charged fans and competitive athletes are historically argumentative bunches, but such a system should alleviate the volume of gripes.

The sophistication and fine-tuning necessary for such a system are staggering to comprehend, but plans for calibration are in the works with Japanese gymnasts. Fujitsu is hopeful the system will be in place four years from now, when Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics.