BEIJING For the first few minutes, Nastia Liukin didn't even know the score, unable to see anything beyond the "2" in front of her name.
When she finally did look, she figured she had to be seeing double.
"I turned to my dad and said, 'Dad, we got the same score.' He looked up and said, 'Oh yeah.' We started getting a little confused," she said.
They weren't the only ones.
The Olympic all-around champion finished with the same score as China's He Kexin in Monday night's uneven bars final, but He got the gold medal and Liukin went home with a silver thanks to gymnastics' convoluted tie-break system that sent everyone scrambling for the rulebook. Reading hieroglyphics might be easier than explaining why He won.
He's teammate, Yang Yilin, won the bronze.
"It's not correct. I believe it's correct to have two gold medals," International Gymnastics Federation president Bruno Grandi said. "But this is my modest opinion. The IOC is different."
Gymnastics used to give out duplicate medals at the Olympics. In a bit of irony, Liukin's father, Valeri, got one of his gold medals at the 1988 Olympics after tying teammate Vladimir Artemov on high bar. But the International Olympic Committee told the FIG to stop sharing medals after the Atlanta Games, and a tie-break system was implemented in 1997.
It's a complicated formula that is based on deductions from the execution mark and involves more math than the SAT. Even Liukin wasn't quite sure how the tie was broken and that was after someone explained it to her.
"I'm not sure if anybody understands what the hell is going on," her father said.
The short answer is that He Kexin had 0.033 less in deductions when you apply the second tie-break formula.
For the long answer, grab a pencil and some scratch paper.
He and Liukin both finished with 16.725. They had identical 7.7 start values (the measure of a routine's difficulty) and they each had a 9.025 for execution after the highest and lowest of the six judges' marks were tossed out. The execution mark is based on the perfect 10 scale, and the first tie-break takes the average of the four deductions that counted. He and Liukin were still tied after that.
For the second tie-break, the three lowest deductions that counted are averaged. When that was done, He had .933 in deductions and Liukin had .966.
"I'm a little disappointed I tied," Liukin said. "It wasn't like I got second by three-tenths or five-tenths. I had the same score. That's what makes it a little harder to take."
Not that Liukin will raise a fuss about it.
"Scoring is scoring, that's our sport," she said. "In other sports, like track and field, it's all timed and it doesn't have anything to do with judging. You do your routine and you turn it over to the judges. That's what we've been going through our entire lives and we've come to accept it."
Then there's the age thing. He, Yang and China's Jiang Yuyuan have all been dogged by questions about their ages, with several online documents and reports suggesting they could be as young as 14. A gymnast has to be 16 in an Olympic year to be eligible. He was asked about it again Monday night, and again said she was 16. Younger gymnasts have more flexibility and less fear that's what would give them an advantage.
But Liukin wasn't about to be drawn into that controversy.
"She's an excellent athlete, no matter how old she is," Liukin said. "She's done her hard work and her preparation. She definitely deserved her gold medal."
He's routine certainly was spectacular.
She's so tiny that she flits and floats between the bars with the quickness and ease of a hummingbird. In one move, she flips herself above the top bar and catches it again with her hands crossed, twisting her body like a contortionist.
She had a slight hop on her landing, but it was a minor flaw.
Liukin's routine was equally impressive. She, too, appears to float between the bars, and her pirouettes on the high bar are so gorgeous dancers should take note. She also did her dismount perfectly quite an accomplishment considering it's been a problem all year. But like He, she also had a small error, on one of her flips.
"I play by the rules. So in my opinion, I have to say yes," Liukin said when someone asked if the result was fair. "Judges have their own opinion and once you land your dismount, there's nothing else you can do."
Besides, Liukin has the medal that REALLY matters.
And with four medals, she's pulled even with her father in the race for family bragging rights. Valeri Liukin won four medals in 1988, two gold and two silver.
"I have the most important medal and it's the all-around gold," she said. "I have four medals now and I'm tied with my dad. One gold, two silvers and a bronze, and I have one more chance to get one gold that I feel like I missed out on today."
The Chinese men aren't missing out on any golds, with Chen Yibing making them 5-for-5 with a win on still rings. They were generous enough to allow someone from another country to get the vault gold, Poland's Leszek Blanik. Of course, they didn't have anyone in the competition, either.
Chen's victory was hardly a surprise. He's a two-time world champion on rings, and his routines are masterful. When his feet slammed into the mat with a thud heard 'round the arena, he closed his eyes and pumped his fist. He didn't have gold quite yet there was one other gymnast left to compete, and Chen held up a finger to the crowd to shush them but there was no question he was the winner.
When he was introduced as the gold medalist, he threw his head back and tears filled his eyes. He and teammate Yang Wei, the silver medalist, bumped fists on the podium, and Chen sang every word of China's anthem.
"This is the highest individual honor for me," he said, "and I waited a long time."
So did Blanik, the bronze medalist on vault in Sydney. It took a tie-break to decide his medal, too, with Blanik getting the edge over France's Thomas Bouhail because he had the highest score of the gymnasts' four attempts.
If only it was that simple for Liukin and He.