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Hamm faces Yang for gold in court

Posted: Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The disputed Olympic gold medal is wrapped in a pair of white socks in Paul Hamm's parents' house in Waukesha, Wis.

Whether that medal stays there is up to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, which spent nearly 12 hours Monday at a hearing for a gymnastics event that took place more than a month ago in Athens.

Hamm stood face to face at the start of the hearing with the other claimant to that all-around medal, South Korean Yang Tae-young.

They greeted each other cordially with a handshake but didn't discuss the issue that divides them. Those words were saved for three arbitrators from Germany, Kenya and Britain, and they heard plenty from Hamm, Yang, their national Olympic committees, witnesses, and lawyers on all sides.

About 35 people crowded into the courtroom, trying to settle something that got fouled up by gymnastics judges.

''I do feel for Yang and empathize for what he's been going through,'' Hamm said in a conference call after the hearing ended without a decision. ''It did feel very strange. I'm not used to being in a situation like this. I'm used to wearing warmup suits, not actual suits. I'd rather be in the arena than be in the courtroom.''

I asked Hamm if he had considered how he would have felt if he were in Yang's shoes, looking at the loss of a gold medal over a scoring error. The judges had miscalculated Yang's parallel bars routine, giving him a 9.9 start value rather than the 10.0 he should have had for degree of difficulty. The difference was enough to hand Hamm the gold and drop Yang to bronze.

''I have considered it,'' Hamm said. ''If the situations would have been reversed, I would have first of all been upset with myself. I would have thought that I had let myself down by not checking the start value. If it were myself, I would have also been very upset with my coach, Miles Avery, for not protesting that start value at that time as well.''

Would Hamm have pursued a reversal of the medals?

''No,'' he said, ''I don't think I would have.''

Fans may believe Hamm or not. I believe Hamm, the U.S. gymnastics federation and the U.S. Olympic Committee would have been squawking just as loudly and persistently as the South Koreans if the scoring had gone the other way.

But no matter which side was protesting, it doesn't change the essential question in the case whether a mathematical or judgmental mistake by officials during an event should be corrected afterward.

It should not.

Hamm's team, led by USOC attorney Jeff Benz, argued three points in countering Yang's claims that the judges' mistake on the parallel bars the next-to-last routine in the all-around impacted the results.

The court, Benz argued, could not make decisions on ''field-of-play'' calls by officials. Second, the South Koreans protested too late. Third, no one knows what would have happened in the final routine if the scores had been different going into it. The performance by Hamm, Yang or both might not have been the same.

''We argued that to change the outcome of the all-around event based upon the mathematical computation in a single part of that event that was not at the conclusion,'' Benz said, ''would result in pure speculation about how the event would have come out had the scoring been differently.''

All those arguments have merit but so, too, do the positions taken by Yang and the South Korean contingent. Though they did not discuss the case after the hearing, they've said from the start that they complained during the competition but were told to file a formal protest afterward. They've said that a miscalculation should not be allowed to stand and that Yang won the event on the mats.

There was no discussion in the courtroom about awarding two golds or splitting the one Hamm has in his drawer at home. Either he keeps it or he gives it back and Yang can wrap it in his own socks.

Given that the court had already said it cannot address field-of-play issues, it seems unlikely that Hamm will be asked to give up his gold. Nor should he. As much as Yang deserves sympathy, he does not deserve more than the phony duplicate medal that his nation awarded him last week.

There are too many judging sports and too many judgmental errors in every Olympics to have disputes drag on after the events are over. If this case teaches anything, it's that gymnastics needs better judges and instant replay.

''Yang is a great athlete,'' Hamm said. ''The dispute doesn't involve his or my actions. I would prefer that this could be resolved in the field of play.''

No matter what the court decides, at least its hearing gave both sides a chance to air their arguments.

''There were a lot of things that got cleared up today,'' Hamm said. ''A lot of facts came out and the whole story was told. It was very educational for me. Actually, my father thinks I should be getting college credits for this.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.



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