Controversy defines men's gymnastics final

Posted: Tuesday, August 24, 2004

ATHENS, Greece 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 Monday during a bizarre, extraordinary evening. Finally, 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 Yang Tae-young of South Korea, who won bronze in the all-around instead of gold last week because of a scoring error.

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.''

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.

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 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.

''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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