While gymnast Daiki Hashimoto cemented his place as one of the sport’s new stars on Tuesday with his gold medal-winning performance on the horizontal bar, it’s the first gold he won at the Tokyo Olympics that may leave a more lasting legacy on the sport and its fandom.

The Games are no stranger to controversy — especially when a judge’s decision is the final difference between gold and silver — but the furor surrounding Hashimoto’s first-place finish in the men’s all-around competition last week stood out not only for its intensity, but for the response it provoked from International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) officials.

Chinese netizens’ reaction to Hashimoto’s 0.4-points victory over China’s Xiao Ruoteng, including thousands of abusive messages directed at the 19-year-old gymnast and FIG on social media, prompted the federation to take the unusual step of explaining the deductions and penalties assigned to Hashimoto after a botched dismount on his vault caused him to step off the mat.

“I have never seen the FIG release a detailed explanation of any score in 11 years of covering the sport. I’m shocked they did it,” veteran gymnastics writer Lauren Hopkins told The Japan Times.

“They will sometimes use routines from major competitions in their learning materials to help judges, coaches and gymnasts learn how a skill should or should not be performed, but to take one specific routine at an Olympic Games and break down the score is pretty much unheard of.”

Daiki Hashimoto of Japan celebrates after winning Olympic gold in the men's horizontal bar at Ariake Gymnastics Centre. | REUTERS
Daiki Hashimoto of Japan celebrates after winning Olympic gold in the men’s horizontal bar at Ariake Gymnastics Centre. | REUTERS

Hashimoto is far from the only Japanese athlete to suffer online abuse during these Olympics — table tennis player Jun Mizutani was targeted by Chinese fans after he and mixed doubles partner Mima Ito beat a Chinese duo to claim gold, while surfer Kanoa Igarashi earned the ire of Brazilian sports fans after his semifinal win over Gabriel Medina.

But while gymnastics competitions at the Olympics have always stirred debate, those voices are now amplified exponentially by social media, where more fans than ever have instant access to highlights, even if they don’t necessarily have a full grasp of the rules.

“I think with social media it has become easier to make it more of a public debate and to criticize the judging of certain routines and athletes,” Hopkins said, “But in my experience a lot of the discussion is people who are upset that their favorite didn’t win, so they overlook any potential controversy with their favorites’ scores and focus or nitpick on one score … that potentially could have changed the outcome.”

Hopkins, a former Emmy-winning producer for NBC, now focuses her efforts on her highly acclaimed blog The Gymternet, named for the sport’s enthusiastic online fandom. The New England native suggests that the kind of cyberbullying that has been seen at the Tokyo Games — especially aimed toward athletes, rather than judges — is a newer phenomenon.

“Cyberbullying has definitely been an issue at times, though it’s usually for things other than results … a lot of the time we see it when an athlete says something problematic or something more along those lines,” she said. “I think most fans, even the more casual ones, know that gymnasts do not control their results, so while the hate is there on social media, it’s toward the judges, not the athletes.

“Fans debating and being upset about judging on social media is nothing new, but to target and tag athletes and officials goes a step further, I think, and it’s concerning that this could potentially represent a new trend.”

Xiao Ruoteng of China in action during the floor exercise on Sunday. | REUTERS
Xiao Ruoteng of China in action during the floor exercise on Sunday. | REUTERS

Like figure skating — another Olympic sport that has had its share of scoring controversies — gymnasts are judged on both the difficulty of their routines as well as the quality of their execution. While Hashimoto’s error on his dismount was a glaring mistake that fans latched on to, Hopkins says the rest of his routine was so strong that judges had no reason to deduct more points.

“I think a lot of people who are more hardcore fans of the sports consider themselves armchair experts because they know the code of points relatively well, but they’re not quite good enough to pick up on a lot of the nuances that go into a routine,” Hopkins said, “and so they focus on things like large steps or hops, not realizing that almost every other aspect of a skill may have been near perfect, which is what I think happened with Hashimoto’s vault.

“Often when there are controversies, it’s people seeing a larger mistake but not taking the skill or routine as a whole into context, but most of what the judges are deducting — or not deducting — is imperceptible to the average fan.”

Hashimoto, for his part, followed up FIG’s statement with a tweet of his own, saying that athletes in judged disciplines such as gymnastics know that such decisions are simply a part of the sport they compete in.

“I’m sorry that my performance resulted in a controversial score at an event as big as the Tokyo Olympics,” Hashimoto wrote on July 29. “Sometimes we as athletes have to accept difficult results or tough scores.

“Scores in judged sports aren’t objective; they’re subjective based on the decisions of the judges. I think we all understand that when we compete in gymnastics.”

Daiki Hashimoto of Japan during the men's horizontal bar final on Tuesday at Ariake Gymnastics Centre | AFP-JIJI
Daiki Hashimoto of Japan during the men’s horizontal bar final on Tuesday at Ariake Gymnastics Centre | AFP-JIJI

Tuesday’s horizontal bar final came with far less controversy as Hashimoto delivered a flawless performance to earn a score of 15.066 — just enough to beat out Croatia’s Tin Srbic, who took silver with 14.900.

Hashimoto’s showing at the Tokyo Games drew praise from fellow gymnasts, who were quick to recognize his resilience after over a week of competitions at Ariake Gymnastics Centre.

“The most important thing for (Hashimoto) is his character, when he can hold under the pressure, under the stress and show the best performance technically and otherwise,” ROC bronze medalist Nikita Nagornyy said after Tuesday’s final.

“He has a bright and big future, and I wish him all success, and I’m sure that he is going to show even better results in the future.”

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