• Pizza contest rules need tightening to remove vagaries

    Tags: Commentary

A self-loathing Siler Chapman sat shaking his head after his freestyle dough-tossing routine at the recent U.S. Pizza Team trials. By his estimation, he blew his chance to win the competition when he dropped his dough two times in his four-minute, split-legged, spine-bending presentation.

"You can't drop doughs out there, not with this kind of competition," Chapman said between deep breaths and gulps of water. "I knew it was over when I did that."

What Chapman didn't know was that the drops didn't hurt him. Not a point. Not even a tenth. That's because judges don't focus on fudges, according to U.S. Pizza Team founder and organizer Steve Green. They're looking for five strengths in a routine: creativity, synchronization to music, variety, dexterity and difficulty.

Apparently, Chapman wasn't the only one unaware that dropping the dough isn't a no-no in such competitions.

Steve Coomes, Senior Editor

Five-time world champion Tony Gemignani didn't know, nor did any of his four cohorts on the World Pizza Champions team — all of whom are experienced tossers. They and many who witnessed the contest (in person or via video recording posted on the Internet) were shocked when the first place trophy went to competitor Juan Hermosillo. The virtual unknown hauled off the winner's hardware after delivering a creative and clever routine — in which he dropped the dough 12 times.

To many, that number was too large to garner a first-place win. But win it did by a margin of 2: Hermosillo 139; Gemignani 137.

Lay it on the table

What clearly stood out in the minds of onlookers was something judges are told to ignore: dough drops. But in reality, they shouldn't be, because the USPT's rules state the importance of "dexterity." That, defined by Webster's, is "skill or adroitness in using the hands or body."

To me, dropping the dough shows a lack of dexterity.

Plus, Hermosillo used a 6-foot-long prep table (on which all competitors prepare their dough for tossing) in his routine, something USPT rules don't say is OK, but something Green called a perfectly acceptable prop under international competition rules.

That's all fine and well, but it's certainly not exciting for fans to see the dough dropped on the table. If only for that brief second the dough is at rest, the performer is watching his dough, not tossing it. Not only does such a move not befit the criteria of creativity, dexterity or difficulty, such drops — no matter how well choreographed — look clumsy to me.

Some have made the argument that working over the table — which Hermosillo did for about a minute in his routine — is like a trapeze artist working over a net. I disagree strongly. At no time does a trapeze artist use the net to support or assist his routine. Rather it's there only to protect him if something goes wrong.

In my opinion, using the table is similar to having another pair of hands.

Possible solutions

In the wake of Hermosillo's victory — or more fairly stated — Gemignani's loss, many cried foul and accused the judges of fixing the contest. To make a long story short, the scores, the judges and the event organizers say otherwise, and I've found no credible evidence that would support a conspiracy theory.

Yet the fact that so many observers and competitors disagree with the outcome can't be ignored. That means U.S. Pizza Team organizers are now challenged to consider what they can do to repair that disconnect.

Green and PMQ Magazine editor-in-chief Tom Boyles claim some of the problem lies in the fact that judges and fans don't view the contest through the same lenses. Freestyle pizza judges, such as those used in New York, know the fine details to look for, while casual viewers (including me), might be too easily impressed or disappointed by details that don't matter to judges.

Still, I believe something can be done to narrow the knowledge gap dividing these two groups. Here are some suggestions.

1. Make the rules vividly clear: Green has told me this will happen before the next contest. Here's why it's so important that happens: In New York, judges were told to credit performers for "new tricks," even though the phrase "new tricks" isn't listed in the judging criteria. And though Green believes the current rules imply "new tricks," Gemignani didn't buy it. Had he known new tricks would earn more points, he said he would have added some to his routine.

2. Eliminate the prep table as a prop: Not only is the table not an exciting prop, I think it's used as a safety net.

3. Institute penalties in the scoring process: Though I never want to see the freestyle contest become too rule laden, I believe it would benefit from penalties that can hurt a performer's score. In Olympic diving, judges balance a dive's degree of difficulty with the quality of its execution. If a dive done in a pike position is performed flawlessly, the diver gets a 10. But if he doesn't enter the water at 90 degrees, doesn't tuck tightly or allows his legs part, he's penalized and might score a 6.

By the same token, a dough tosser shouldn't get undue credit for poor execution, even for trying complex tricks he can't perform. If he rolls a dough skin across his shoulders but doesn't catch it on the other end, he should be penalized.

Here's another reason why I believe penalties are important: Fans want to "be the judge," because it gets them involved. But in competitions where rules are vague and obscure, fans ultimately will feel confused and lose interest.

The U.S. Pizza Team, and especially Gemignani, have worked hard to raise awareness of and the interest level in freestyle tossing. So it would be sad if spectators found it less fun to watch because they didn't know what the heck was going on.

4. Lastly, make sure the penalties are crystal clear: For example, both Green and Boyles said Gemignani's performance was the most conservative they've seen him do in years of contests, and Boyles believes that may have hurt him in the scoring. If judges were looking for new tricks, I can see how that might hurt him.

But if Gemignani did play it safe, should that have hurt his score more than Hermosillo dropping the dough 12 times?

I think not.

Share your opinion on this commentary by e-mailing Steve Coomes at stevec@pizzamarketplace.com

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