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Gymnastics Fans Sound Their Fury in Athens

August 24, 2004|Diane Pucin and Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writers

ATHENS — For almost 10 minutes, the crowd at Olympic Indoor Hall booed. Enraged fans whistled and hissed, pointing angry fingers toward judges and, in some cases, at American gymnast Paul Hamm.

There were chants of "Nemov! Nemov!" -- the name of the Russian who had wowed them with a spectacular high-bar routine Monday that they thought was scored too low.

And there were hoots for Hamm, a 21-year-old American who is at the center of a storm surrounding the gold medal in the all-around event.

Hamm was a feel-good story Wednesday, rallying from 12th place after a fall into a judge's table to win in the closest finish in individual all-around history. Since then, however, he has become mired in a controversy prompted by an inadvertent scoring mistake that has become a symbol of the flaws in international sports judging.

Monday night, emotions boiled over at the men's individual finals.

When Alexei Nemov's score was posted lower than expected, the crowd stood in anger and began booing nonstop. "I've never seen anything like it," said Miles Avery, Hamm's coach.

Hamm's routine was delayed until Nemov stepped forward to quiet the crowd. Hamm went on to win a silver medal, and Nemov, a 12-time medalist, finished fifth -- despite two judges changing their scores to boost his total.

The outburst took place as Hamm's status as champion of the all-around was still being challenged. On Monday, the same day international gymnastics officials were saying the case was closed, South Korean sports delegates said they would ask the Court of Arbitration for Sport to investigate the result that seemingly cost one of their athletes the gold medal.

Hamm's victory was the first in the all-around competition by an American man, as he edged South Korea's Kim Dae Eun, by .012 point, and Yang Tae Young, by .049.

But after the competition was over, it was discovered that the start value of Yang's parallel bars routine had mistakenly been placed at 9.9 instead of 10.0. That meant Yang's score was .10 lower than it should have been -- a difference that might have given him the gold medal.

On Friday, the South Korean Olympic federation filed a protest with the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG). The next day, it was announced that a mistake had been made. Judges were sanctioned, but the result was not changed.

FIG spokesman Philippe Silacci said Monday that "the matter is over" and the decision that Hamm was the gold medalist was final.

While U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) officials have been in discussions with the Korean federation about awarding Yang a second gold medal, FIG officials have contended that they lack the authority to approve such an arrangement.

Bruno Grandi of Italy, FIG president, told Associated Press on Monday night: "I don't have the possibility to change it. Our rules don't allow it."

USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said, "We have communicated to them that we are willing to consider the notion of a second gold medal awarded in the event."

Alex Gilady, an International Olympic Committee member from Israel, suggested one possible solution: "If the athlete with the disputed gold agreed to give up his medal."

But the USOC rejected that. "We support Paul Hamm completely, and in no way do we believe he should be asked to give up his gold medal," Seibel said.

Hamm reiterated Monday night that he considered himself the rightful Olympic all-around champion. "But I will abide by whatever decision FIG comes to," he said. "If they tell me to return the medal, I will. If they tell me to share the medal, I will."

Early today, about two hours after Monday's competition was over, Hamm released a statement that said: "I do understand and feel the disappointment that Yang Tae Young has been subjected to and I hope he understands what I have been through as well. We are both great athletes and should be proud of our performances."

Hamm ended the statement by saying, "I will respect any decision of the Olympic governing bodies."

On a night of cacophony and confusion, Hamm's statements provided a calm after the storm. He had performed to only a couple of jeering whistles in finishing seventh on the parallel bars earlier in Monday's competition.

It wasn't until the scores were announced for Nemov's flamboyant high-bar routine that the crowd unleashed its frustration. Nemov, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist in the all-around and the high bar, was the third of 10 performers. His original score of 9.725 was lower than that of Isao Yoneda of Japan and Morgan Hamm, Paul's twin brother, who each received 9.787.

It was Paul Hamm's bad luck to be the next competitor. He twice climbed up to start his routine, but the booing only got louder. As Nemov sat in a chair and smiled, a new score of 9.762 flashed on the board. Malaysian judge Kin Kin Teh and Canadian judge Chris Grabowecky had changed their original scores. Teh adjusted his mark from 9.600 to 9.75; Grabowecky's went from 9.65 to 9.75.

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