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Gabby Douglas and the genius of Olympic ignorance

Gabby Douglas appeared to lose a chance at another medal by making a mistake on the uneven bars at the London Olympics Monday, but that's not really what happened.

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Gabrielle Douglas competes in the women's gymnastics uneven bars final in the North Greenwich Arena during the London 2012 Olympic Games Monday.

Mike Blake/REUTERS

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Gabrielle Douglas stood in front of the uneven bars Monday, took a deep breath, and jumped. With the hush of anticipation settled over the arena, seemingly the entire competition rested in the two clutching hands of that tiny girl.

All the other girls in the uneven bars competition had finished, and now the winner of individual all-around had a chance to make her mark on these Olympics even more indelible with a third gold medal. As drama, it was gripping stuff. 

It was also almost a complete lie. 

Douglas did not lose a chance at a winning another medal because she made a mistake during her routine. The fact is, even before she leapt onto the uneven bars, she had virtually no chance of winning any medal, much less gold. But that is the genius of the Olympics. From gymnastics to judo, virtually no one apart from the judges and a few blogging geeks in the stands has any idea what's going on.

Do we know what right of way is in fencing? Would we know how to perform an ippon upon our next-door neighbor if asked? Do we know what a D score is?

No, but human spectacle and drama of the Olympics is compelling enough that we don't need to know. We watch and are amazed simply because what is happening before us is amazing. Except when it isn't. Just don't expect anyone to tell you that.

For the Olympics, some of the allure is almost certainly in the ignorance. Otherwise, how would we ever have a good judging scandal?

On Monday, the numbers of gymnastics' judging system had consigned Douglas's uneven bar routine to irrelevance (at least, from a medal perspective) before she even began. But it would have taken a congressional investigation to find that out. 

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