A gymnast performs her beam routine — it’s not her best, a little bit hesitant. Some pauses in between the skills that she's supposed to connect smoothly. She waits for her score from the judges, and it when it appears on the scoreboard, her face falls. It’s not enough.
That’s it, right? Not always. If that athlete’s coach is fast enough and has the right amount of cash, there’s a chance she can convince the judges to give her gymnast a few more tenths of a point.
No, it’s not bribery. It’s called filing an inquiry or appealing a score.
Immediately after a score is posted, an accredited coach on the competition floor is entitled to approach the judging panel and verbally inquire about the score of her gymnast. Within four minutes, the coach must confirm her inquiry in writing and pay a fee of $300 — it used to be strictly cash, but no longer. That’s just the fee for the first inquiry; if a coach challenges her gymnast’s score on a second event, it goes up to $500, and if there’s a third inquiry it’s a full $1000.
An inquiry doesn’t simply boil down to “the mean judges weren’t fair to my gymnast.” It specifically concerns the difficulty component of an athlete’s total score — the part where a gymnast gets credit for her skills, connections and requirements.
For example, on balance beam a gymnast will get points for doing a front flip and a split leap. But if she goes directly from a front flip into her split leap without a significant pause, she’ll get more points: a connection bonus. But what consists a pause is up for debate, and is one of the most common subjects of an appeal.
After receiving the written inquiry and fee, the judges use video to review the routine and see if all the difficulty points for skills and connections were correctly awarded. If they see that an error was made in crediting a connection, they will adjust the gymnast’s score and return the fee. If they reject the appeal and the score stands, the money is given to the International Gymnastics Federation.
The reasoning behind having such a high fee is that it prevents excessive or meritless challenges — if it was free or cheap, it wouldn't be a bad strategy to appeal every score in hopes that one will eventually be accepted.
In the balance beam final at the Rio Olympics, Laurie Hernandez’s coach filed an appeal against her score but was rejected, so Hernandez remained in the silver medal position.
Aly Raisman has better luck four years ago.
In the beam final at the 2012 London Olympics, Raisman’s initial score left her in fourth place, just one-tenth of a point away from the podium. When the numbers appeared on the scoreboard, Raisman and her coach, Mihai Brestyan, appeared crushed. But then a pair of booming Romanian voices could be heard from the stands—Martha and Bela Karolyi, the legendary coaches, were screaming at Brestyan to file an appeal.
After a frantic search for a pen, Brestyan submitted the inquiry and it was taken up to the technical committee to review. Raisman anxiously waited, and waited, and waited to find out if she’d receive a medal.
Finally her revised score flashed above the arena — they accepted her appeal, and she was now tied for third with Romania's Catalina Ponor. But since her execution score (which remained unchanged) was higher, she won the tiebreaker and the medal.
Sanne Wevers, the Dutch gymnast who won balance beam gold over Hernandez and Simone Biles in Rio, takes appeals into her own hands. At the 2015 World Championships, Wevers finished her beam routine and immediately grabbed her notebook, scribbling down every skill in her routine in order to calculate her own difficulty score. It didn't match the judges' score, so her coach filed an inquiry. The judges had been notoriously strict that competition, rejecting most if not all of the submitted inquiries. But they had to acknowledge that Wevers' math was right, and they raised her beam score. Wevers won a world championship silver.