ATHENS, Greece He had to be perfect and hope no one else was.
Even Paul Hamm's coach figured it was over: ''I thought he had no odds.''
A fall on his vault landing sent Hamm stumbling into the judges' table and all the way down to 12th place in the all-around gymnastics final.
''I thought, 'That's it. I'm done,''' he said.
Far from it. In one of the most amazing comebacks in Olympic history, Hamm performed the two most spectacular routines of his career Wednesday to win the gold medal by the closest margin ever in the event.
''I'm happy right now. Shocked, actually,'' said Hamm, the first American man to win the Olympic all-around. ''To be in first place after that kind of mistake, I thought there was no chance to win.''
The final competitor of the night, Hamm needed a 9.825 on the high bar, his best event, to tie Kim Dae-eun of South Korea for gold and he was dazzling. The highlight of his routine are three straight release moves, and he did them perfectly.
Hamm threw himself up and over the bar, catching it on the way down once, twice and then a third time, soaring higher with each toss. His dismount was perfect, and he hit the mat with a solid thud before thrusting his fists into the air and throwing his head back in jubilation. He waved at the roaring crowd and then sprinted off the podium clapping his hands while his coach, Miles Avery, jumped up and down on the sideline.
Avery grabbed Hamm in a bearhug when he came off the podium. Hamm then dropped into a chair, overwhelmed by what he had done. When his score of 9.837 flashed on the scoreboard, the arena went into a frenzy.
''I thought I could win silver, maybe bronze,'' said the 21-year-old from Waukesha, Wis. ''I didn't think I could win gold until Miles said, 'You're the Olympic champion,' and all I could think to say was, 'No way!'''
Hamm finished with 57.823 points, beating Kim by .012. The previous closest margin in the event was .017 by Leon Stukelj of Yugoslavia over Robert Prazak of Czechoslovakia in the 1924 Games. The women also had .012, in 1992, when Ukraine's Tatyana Gutsu edged American Shannon Miller.
''I thought maybe I could get first,'' Kim said. ''I'm rather disappointed and angry, in a way.''
Ioan Suciu of Romania wasn't happy, either, after finishing 0.126 points behind bronze medalist Yang Tae-young of South Korea.
''The only thing I can say is that the USA got something more than it deserved,'' Suciu said.
But as defending world champion, Hamm is going to get the benefit of the doubt. And really, anyone who watched his last two routines could hardly argue with the final results.
''It was one of the most amazing comebacks in gymnastics history,'' said U.S. teammate Brett McClure, who finished ninth. ''He's so determined not to fail.''
He usually doesn't, which is what made his debacle on vault so stunning.
Hamm appeared to have the gold medal firmly within his grasp with a .038 point lead over China's Yang Wei, his biggest rival, halfway through the meet. He moved to the vault, normally one of his most solid events, and looked good when he hit the springboard and leapt forward, turning his body sideways before his hands hit the horse.
Springing backward, he did 1 1/2 somersaults, but he didn't get enough height on the twists and hit the mat in a crouch. There was no time to stabilize himself, his left leg crossing over the right and sending him on a sickening stumble.
''I don't know how that happened,'' he said. ''It felt good in the air.''
The crowd gasped as he fell sideways and back off the mat, hitting the edge of the judges' table before he plopped down, a stunned look on his face. He got up and walked off the podium, shaking his head and thinking he'd probably just cost himself the gold.
''I was very upset and depressed,'' Hamm said. ''I felt I let myself down.''
He looked dazed when he saw his score of 9.137, which dropped him 12th place and more than a half-point behind Yang an almost insurmountable deficit.
''I looked at the scoreboard and said it's a long, long climb, because I know the quality of the gymnasts out there,'' Avery said.
Going first on his next event, the parallel bars, Hamm flipped from one handstand right into another, still as a marble statue. His dismount was textbook perfect.
His score, also a 9.837, was the highest on the parallel bars and would move him up in the standings. But just how high would depend on his competitors. And one by one, they fell away.
When the rotation finally ended, Hamm had jumped all the way back to fourth place, only .313 points out of first.
''Sure, he was a little frustrated'' after the fall, McClure said. ''But the great ones take that frustration and direct it toward an event and put up a huge number. And then, BOOM!''
Kim was the first of the leaders to go, and his floor routine was solid, but not spectacular. He looked up as he walked off the floor, then went to the sideline to wait.
Finally, it was Yang's turn. His high bar routine was serviceable, too, but hardly golden.
That was all Hamm needed.
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