Despite judging error, Hamm's gold medal shows no tarnish
Posted: Monday August 23, 2004 6:55AM; Updated: Monday August 23, 2004 10:13AM
Let me be clear here, since some self-righteous columnists who wouldn't know a handstand from a night stand have entered the fray: Paul Hamm should not give up his gold medal.
Nor is his gold medal tarnished, as the headline writers have suggested. Nor should a second gold medal in the men's all-around competition be awarded to South Korea's unfortunate Yang Tae Young. This is not another Skategate, where judges in the pairs competition in Salt Lake were caught colluding. It's time for the media to back off.
Here's what happened -- and I warn you in advance, it's not easy to follow. Yang did his parallel bars routine, and was scored a 9.712 -- a pretty good score. To put it in perspective, in the team finals two nights earlier, he had a 9.687 on the same apparatus with a similar routine.
The two judges in charge of assigning start values for parallel bars in the all-around, Spain's Benjamin Bango and Colombia's Oscar Buitrago Reyes, decided Yang's start value was 9.9. The head judge on the parallel bars, George Beckstead, didn't overrule them.
It was these three judges who eventually were suspended by the International Gymnastics Federation when, after studying the videotape, it was determined the start value for Yang should have been 10.0, as it had been in the team competition finals. Had it been, Yang would have scored 9.812 on the apparatus, and his total would have been .10 higher heading into his final event, the high bars.
That is not to say Yang would have finished .10 higher at the end of the night, which some are suggesting. Gymnasts don't operate in a vacuum, nor do judges score in a vacuum.
Everyone knows exactly where they stand relative to the other competitors. Yang might have relaxed with the bigger lead; he might have become uptight and choked; or he might have been perfectly brilliant. We will never know. But it's fair to say his mental outlook would have been altered.
Judges, too, might have scored his high-bar routine differently had he been further ahead than he was at the time. It's not the way it's supposed to work, but judges are human. They have their favorites. That's why the FIG rules state that any protest must be filed before the end of a rotation -- in this case, the parallel bars -- which the Koreans failed to do.
A couple of points: a 9.9 start value is not unusual. The night of the all-around competition, Yang also had a 9.9 start value on his vault, and -- even lower -- a 9.8 start value on his high bar routine.
Disputes over start values occur all the time. Blaine Wilson of the U.S. was furious after the preliminaries of the team competition because the start values for him and two of his teammates had been lowered in the high-bar rotation. In this case, the disagreement was magnified because a gold medal hung in the balance.
The two judges charged with determining a start value must do so in real time, and they make their assessment on the basis of what the gymnast actually does: difficulty of elements, grip changes, releases and positions, to name a few. Not what's planned on paper.
It's incredibly complicated stuff. The head judge, in this case Beckstead, a veteran official from Los Angeles, generally only weighs in if there's a disagreement between the two officials assigning the start value. In the case of Yang, there was no disagreement.
Was a mistake made? Yes, they admitted as much. Did it decide the competition? Well, it affected it, no question. But it is flatly untrue to say if they'd had the start value correct at 10.0, then Yang would have won.
Was there corruption or collaboration on the part of the judges? No one has even suggested as much. As long as a sport is judged, subjectivity will play a role, and there will be accusations of bias. All gymnasts know this.
All gymnasts have suffered from bias, and sometimes, whether they admit it or not, have benefited from bias. It's part of gymnastics. Heck, it's part of all sport. It's the human element that gives athletics their great, universal appeal.
So why not a second gold medal? Why not accommodate the upset Koreans and send everyone home happy? Well for one thing, you can make a pretty good case that, if you're going to go to the videotape, Yang shouldn't have won.
Yes, the videotape of the parallel bars showed the judges erred by assigning a 9.9 start value. But it showed something else, too. In the course of his routine, Yang had four holds on the bar, when the rules allow for a maximum of three. The deduction for that mistake? Two-tenths of a point.
The judges missed it.
It is not enough to say Paul Hamm should keep his gold medal. He's a deserving champion. Period.