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Leaving plenty to be desired

Judging controversies, misguided media mar Olympic gymnastics

Posted: Tuesday August 24, 2004 12:24PM; Updated: Saturday August 28, 2004 8:59AM

Alexei Nemov
The decision to change Alexei Nemov's score on the high bar after a crowd protest extended the shadow over the sport.
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It's all over but the exhibition gala, and herewith, my take on the 2004 gymnastics competition in Athens:

The Judging

I never thought I'd find a sport in which the judging was more suspect than figure skating, but gymnastics takes the prize. It didn't begin or end with the Yang Tae Young fiasco, in which the Korean's start value in the parallel bars of the men's all-around competition was incorrectly set at 9.9, perhaps costing him the gold. Earlier, on the eve of the men's preliminaries, International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) officials informed three Americans, Blaine Wilson, Brett McClure and Jason Gatson that the start values on their high bar routines, which they'd been using for two years in international competition, were being lowered from 10.0 to 9.9. No explanation for why the sudden change. In response, Wilson and Gatson changed their long-rehearsed routines to get the start value back up to 10.0, and in the prelims Wilson fell on his new move.

The kicker, though, was at last night's men's high bar finals, when Alexei Nemov of Russia, the defending Olympic champion, brought the crowd to its feet with a spectacular, crowd-pleasing aerial show. When the judges put up a score that left Nemov out of the medals, 9.725, the packed stadium started booing and whistling with a ferocity I've never seen at a gymnastics competition. It wasn't just Russian fans. Greeks, Americans, Italians -- all were incredulous that two of the six judges could have marked him as low as 9.60 and 9.65. The cacophony wouldn't abate. For more than 10 minutes the booing and whistling continued as Paul Hamm waited to do his routine. Then, incredibly and without explanation, the two judges who'd given Nemov the lowest marks upped their scores to 9.75. (Start value remained at 10.0, the highest possible.) Nemov's total now was 9.762, still shy of a medal. "I've never seen that done before," U.S. assistant coach Myles Avery said afterward. "It's highly, highly unusual. To change scores because of crowd noise? What it says about gymnastics is not very good."

FIG scurried the judges away before anyone could question them, but the impression it left was crystal clear: These officials are flying by the seat of their pants. The gymnasts deserve better.

The Quality

Despite a fine showing by the U.S. team in general, the quality of the gymnastics in Athens was below that displayed in the last three Olympics. Carly Patterson, who won the women's all-around competition, is a good, solid performer who deserved her title, but she hasn't carried the sport in any new directions. Her strengths are consistency and mental toughness, not exactly the formula to bring a crowd out of their seats. She is only average on both the high bar and the vault. Her nearest rival in Athens, Russia's Svetlana Khorkina, 25, is at least four years beyond her prime, yet is still the second best women's gymnast in the world.

It's much the same with the men. Paul Hamm won the all-around despite falling in the vault. Both Russia and China fielded teams that were old, and looked it. Only Japan and Korea seemed to be teams on the rise.

Why the drop-off in quality? I trace it to the after-effects of the break-up of the Soviet Union. The gymnastics machine that country built between 1980-'92 was the greatest in the history of the sport. They had the best coaches and the best athletes, and their excellence dragged the rest of the sport ahead as others tried to keep pace. America's Shannon Miller never won the Olympic all-around title, as Mary Lou Retton and now Patterson have done, but Miller, who took second in 1992, was the superior gymnast. Her misfortune was having to compete against an incomparable Soviet team led by Svetlana Boguinskaya.

Since the breakup of the Soviet machine, the coaches who built it have made a slow and steady exodus to other countries, where they've built other programs. (Patterson's coach, Yevgeny Marchenko, is a Soviet expatriate.) But in doing so, they're getting access to athletes who haven't been carefully selected by the now-dismantled Soviet sports school system. The result, which has been to the benefit of U.S. gymnastics, is a leveling of the playing field, and an overall drop-off in quality.

The Media and Paul Hamm

Loathe as I am to pile onto my fellow ink-stained wretches of the press, this has not been our finest hour. Hamm is a gymnast and a sportsman, not a politician. Not a rules maker. Not a judge. He's had a fantastic Olympics, two silver medals and the controversial gold. The controversy was not of his making, but some columnists have suggested, quite publicly, that he should solve it by making the grand gesture of returning his medal, as if it were an errant piece of mail. One actually said he should do so in the interest of improving America's image abroad. Brilliant. Let's blame a gymnast for the decline of America's stature in the world.

Another prominent figure at a certain national daily opined how such a move would actually enrich Hamm, make him a magnet for endorsements, set himself apart from the rest of the gold medalists from these Games. Never mind that Hamm is not about riches and fame, that he would never have started down this road if that had been the goal. Right now he's about gymnastics, being the best. He's worked his life for this, and in his heart he believes he should have won.

Yet he has said, and continues to say, if the FIG tells him to give back the gold medal, he'll abide by its ruling. At this point the controversy has already ruined what had been a lifelong dream. His mother, Cecily, has been crying for two days. His father, Sandy, is beyond disillusionment at the sport he introduced his entire family to. Yet the human element remains lost to the sportswriters, whose work has been made so easy as a result of the Hamm's misery. They pick at the bones of this story like jackals, jabbing at the raw nerves of the innocent athlete instead of going after the officials of the FIG and USA Gymnastics, all of whom have hung Hamm out to dry, leaving him to explain their mistakes and perhaps to arrive at a solution.

Last night at the news conference following Hamm's silver medal in the high bar, Hamm was told by a reporter that the FIG said it wouldn't change the results of the competition. His gold medal would stand.

Then the zinger: One official had hinted, it was alleged -- off the record -- that it would be a nice gesture if Hamm took it upon himself to return the gold. So would he? Huh? Would he give it back? Would he?

So this is what it has come to in my profession. The media a willing conduit between the rulers of the sport and the athlete, feeding the story, refusing to let it play out on its own terms, hoping to push the button that will get someone to melt down. Not reporting the news, but creating it. Destroying the Olympic experience for a great athlete and a good man. Diminishing all of us.

Like I said, it hasn't been our finest hour.

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