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ATHENS 2004 | Mike Penner / THE DAY IN ATHENS

Gymnastics Misses Its Connections Too

August 28, 2004|Mike Penner

ATHENS — What we had here Friday at the Summer Olympics was a failure to communicate.

In the headline-hogging activity known as gymnastics, which refuses to get off the stage even though the stage was torn down days ago, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and the U.S. Olympic Committee swapped snippy letters regarding the status of Paul Hamm's gold medal, setting the Games back at least 108 years.

With Internet, text-messaging, mobile phone, pager and fiber-optic technology all at the ready here, FIG and the USOC were perhaps feeling nostalgic, evoking the spirit of the 1896 Athens Games -- if not high school freshman history class -- by sending written notes back and forth the old-fashioned way.

The notes talked about some popular guy behind his back.

One of the notes said that this guy had something that really didn't belong to him and if he wanted to stay popular he had better give it back.

The other note said mind your own business, you've got a lot of nerve, I'm not giving this note to him and you better not tell anybody about these notes if you know what's best for you.

Then they all went to out to the basketball game and watched the varsity lose to Argentina.

If only the varsity could have passed the ball the way FIG tried to pass the buck.

In an extraordinary communique written by FIG President Bruno Grandi to Hamm, by way of the USOC, Grandi asked Hamm to give back the all-around gold medal he received last week because FIG's judges made a statistical mistake that cost South Korean gymnast Yang Tae Young 0.1 in degree-of-difficulty start value.

"As a result," Grandi wrote, "the true winner of the All-Around competition is Yang Tae Young.

"If (according to your declarations to the press), you would return your medal to the Korean if the FIG requested it, then such an action would be recognised as the ultimate demonstration of Fair-play by the whole world. The FIG and the IOC would highly appreciate the magnitude of this gesture."

Gee, thanks, Bruno.

FIG makes a mess of the men's all-around competition, taking Hamm's remarkable come-from-behind triumph and twisting it into the controversy of the Athens Games, and if that wasn't enough of a headache for Hamm, FIG is now asking him to do janitor work on its behalf.

Jim Scherr, USOC president, wrote Grandi back, describing the FIG letter as "a blatant and inappropriate attempt on the part of FIG to once again shift responsibility for its own mistakes and instead pressure Mr. Hamm into resolving what has become an embarrassing situation for the Federation."

Just warming up, Scherr called FIG's request "improper, outrageous and so far beyond the bounds of what is acceptable that we refuse to transmit it to Mr. Hamm."

In addition, Scherr "strongly" urged Grandi to "not release your letter to the media or make your request of Mr. Hamm known publicly in any manner at any time."

So, in a move that would prove ominous for the U.S. women's 400-meter relay team later in the day, the USOC declined to hand off the letter to Hamm.

The USOC informed the media of this by calling a news conference to discuss the terms of the letter it didn't want released to the media.

As I say, there were some communication issues.

Marion Jones and Lauryn Williams had kind of a big one on the track, halfway through the women's 400-meter relay final. Jones, running the second leg, held the baton and tried to pass it to Williams, who is new to this Olympic relay business and was running hard, running for the gold and took off before Jones could complete the handoff.

According to the game plan, Jones was supposed to verbally announce her arrival to Williams. Jones did this, shouting, "Stop! Stop! Wait! Wait!" as she entered the 20-meter baton-passing zone.

Williams didn't appear to hear, although she later said she did. "I just left too early," she said.

Coming on the heels of a lackluster fifth-place finish in the long jump, the relay breakdown left Jones medal-less in Athens. The drive for five in 2000 became the run for none in 2004.

The relay was the final straw and could be considered another message dispatched from a higher authority.

Dear Marion,

I understand this has been quite a vexing year for you, considering the trials of BALCO and the scourge of drug innuendo. Several of your relay teammates have expressed concern to me that you might taint their gold-medal run should you aid their victory only to be later found guilty of a doping violation and ... oh, there's the gun now.

Oh, well, never mind.

Your fan, as ever,

Zeus

Any worries that the relay runners might have to give up the gold medal were quelled early on. They gave it up after 200 meters.

And on the same night Jones wrapped up an oh-for-Athens, the U.S. men's basketball team lost for the third time in seven games, this time to Argentina in a semifinal. For the first time since NBA joined the game in 1992, the U.S. will not win the Olympic gold medal -- and might not medal at all, since the opposition in today's third-place game is Lithuania, which has already defeated the Makes You Want to Scream Team in pool play.

This wasn't supposed to happen to Larry Brown and a bunch of NBA stars, even if most of them were third-tier NBA stars. Evidently, they did not receive the memo.

Communication was a problem here all day.

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