- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

ATHENS — The Russians were angry. The South Koreans were angry. The Greeks were angry. Nobody paid for it more than Paul Hamm.

For 10 solid minutes, the crowd booed and whistled, creating a deafening roar. Hamm, the all-around champion, was forced to sit around and wait, unable to start his routine because of the din.

“I’ve never heard it that loud in my life,” he said. “I felt like I was in a movie.”

A week’s worth of controversy in gymnastics boiled over into the stands yesterday during a bizarre, extraordinary evening.

Being in the middle of a maelstrom is not unusual for Hamm these days. Yesterday, before the individual events, the gymnast continued to have his all-around gold medal questioned after a judge’s scoring error cost South Korean Yang Tae-young the all-round title last week.

Bruno Grandi, president of the International Gymnastics Federation, told the Associated Press that rules prevent him from asking for another gold medal to make up for the scoring error.

“I don’t have the possibility to change it,” Grandi told the AP. “Our rules don’t allow it.”

Hamm won the gold Wednesday after judges incorrectly scored Yang’s parallel bars routine, failing to give him enough points for the level of difficulty. Yang ended up with the bronze, while Hamm became the first American man to win the event.

“We have indicated to them that we would be willing to consider the notion of a second gold medal being awarded,” USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel told the AP. “It’s up to the Korean Olympic Committee to determine how it wants to proceed. There’s a willingness to at least consider this idea.”

Even if the USOC and South Koreans reach an agreement, FIG would have to ask the International Olympic Committee to award a second gold medal. And that would require FIG to rewrite its rulebook because protests have to be filed immediately.

“If the athlete does not agree to give up his medal, I don’t know what we can do,” IOC member Alex Gilady said. “For me, the best situation would be for Paul Hamm to take this medal and give …” Grandi told the AP, pretending to remove a medal from around his neck and leaving the sentence unfinished.

But Hamm said he has no plans to give up the medal unless someone asks him.

“I truly believe in my heart that I am the Olympic all-around champion,” Hamm said. “I did my job, and I competed with pride and integrity.”

Which brings Hamm back to last night.

Finally, after all the commotion, Hamm was able to block out the noise and win a silver medal on high bar, and four-time Olympic gold medalist Alexei Nemov finished fifth, much to the chagrin of the crowd.

Hamm scored a 9.812, tying Igor Cassina for first, but the Italian won a tiebreaker to take the gold. Japan’s Isao Yoneda won bronze.

On a night when American all-around champion Carly Patterson won silver on the beam to give the U.S. women their sixth medal of the Games, it was the high bar routine that everybody wanted to see.

The showdown, on the last event of the night, was supposed to be between Hamm and Tae-young.

But it was Nemov — “Sexy Alexei” as he’s known — who changed all that.

Flying like a circus acrobat, Nemov put together the riskiest, most daring performance of the 10 men on the high bar. He did six — count ‘em, six — release moves, four in a row and two more with somersaults as he flew backward over the bar.

The crowd oohed and ahhed. To the untrained eye, it looked nearly perfect.

Only one problem.

“Sometimes there’s a difference between what the people think they saw and what the judges think they saw,” USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi said.

Maybe that’s why fans pretty much ignored the big step forward Nemov took when he landed. And maybe that’s what started the furor when Nemov’s score popped up, a 9.725 that ranked him last among the three gymnasts who had gone to that point.

“Totally unbelievable,” said John Roethlisberger, a three-time member of the American Olympic team. “I’ve never seen a crowd actually call for a judges’ meeting and get one.”

But that’s what happened on this night.

About five minutes into the booing, the judges huddled, and the Malaysian member of the panel, Kin Kin Teh, changed his score. It boosted Nemov to a 9.762 but still kept him third.

When the meet was over, after Hamm and Cassina pushed him down to fifth, Nemov said he deserved at least a bronze.

“It was a little unfair,” he said. “Everything is already decided before. Maybe just a small mistake and that gives them the opening to put me down. That’s not right.”

Those words were eerily similar to the complaint Russian star Svetlana Khorkina voiced after she got edged out in the all-around by Patterson last Thursday. Russians, who made up a good part of the crowd, were clearly enraged to see another countryman “robbed.” They waved their flags and chanted during the delay.

Fans waved a lot of Greek flags, too. Many in the Games’ host country were still fuming over the way Vlasios Maras was scored in team preliminaries. He earned a 9.725 on high bar, not good enough to make event finals, and his score was the first to be challenged in what has become a protest-fest at these Olympics. His protest was denied.

South Korea didn’t have a big contingent, but it was the flap between Yang and Hamm that has defined these Games thus far. Add it all together and you get …

“It was just very stressful,” Hamm said.

With the booing still going, Hamm paced, then sat, then talked to his brother and his coach. The public-address announcer came on and implored the crowd for silence. Twice. It didn’t work either time. Nemov just sat there smiling, but minute by minute, the outburst became embarrassing.

Finally, Hamm and coach Miles Avery motioned Nemov to the podium, and the Russian asked for silence. The crowd finally relented.

“It was a class act by Alexei,” said Colarossi, who had seen this much booing only one other time — at a rhythmic gymnastics meet. “What he did was in the true Olympic spirit.”

And Hamm’s performance was a picture of the Olympic ideal.

“I basically had to tell myself to focus,” he said. “It was so distracting.”

Twirling under the most awkward of circumstances, he was practically flawless. He brilliantly executed his trademark three straight release moves without any problem, took a slight step forward on the landing and received … a 9.812, a mark that easily outdistanced Nemov.

It was also met with raucous boos.

Next came Cassina, who put on a great performance for another 9.812. A complex tiebreaking formula used in gymnastics put him ahead of Hamm and gave him a surprise championship.

Yang was the last competitor of the night, but his routine was anticlimactic. He banged his foot on the bar during a release move, almost hit his knees on the landing and finished last of the 10 gymnasts, a result that nobody from any country can protest.

After the gymnasts cleared the floor, the judges followed them off and were greeted again by boos. During the medals ceremony, officials put the silver around Hamm and the gesture was greeted with a mix of cheers and boos — an odd ending to an awfully strange night.

Earlier, Patterson used her last routine of the Olympics put to rest any doubts about whether she was solid on the beam. She fell twice during Olympic trials, alarming some of those who had seen her do the routine without flaw for months previous.

She made her trademark Arabian — a leaping half twist into a somersault — look easy. All the rest of her flips and turns were good, too, and she was smiling while she was still in the air during her double handspring, double somersault dismount.

Only Catalina Ponor of Romania was better, a 9.787 to Patterson’s 9.775. Ponor also won gold Monday night on the floor.

“I have made my entire beam routine since I’ve been here,” Patterson said. “I’m definitely happy. I couldn’t ask for more. Being all-around champion is what I wanted.”

That’s all Hamm wanted, too.

He never figured it would be this much work.

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