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21-Oct-2004 - Gymnast Paul Hamm Gets to Keep Gold

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October 21, 2004

Gymnast Paul Hamm Gets to Keep Gold

Paul Hamm, gold-medal gymnast for the U.S.Paul Hamm entered the Athens Olympics slightly favored to win the men's all around gold medal. He was the reigning national champion, though some skeptics considered his national win to be a fluke. And he and his delightful twin brother Morgan had just led the U.S. men's team to an all-around silver medal for the team competition.

Things seemed to be going well for Paul until the fourth of six event rotations when he failed his vault landing and fell. The error dropped him to twelfth place, seemingly out of any medal contention. Paul didn't expect to win gold anymore - he hoped and prayed he might squeak out a bronze, but even that would be a longshot. But luck and skill prevailed: some of the gymnasts above him failed their remaining routines while Hamm delivered near-perfect routines on the parallel bars and high bar to narrowly clinch the gold.

The story should have ended there, with Paul Hamm acknowledged as having completed what may be the best comeback in gymnastic history.

But it didn't. Two days later, Korean officials protested that one of their athletes, Yang Tae-young, suffered a scoring error by the panel of judges that rated the degree of difficulty for his parallel bars routine a tenth of a point lower than it should have been (a problem that many other teams, including the American team, also experienced at different points of the competition). Yang won a bronze, 0.049 points behind Hamm, but would have ended up 0.051 points ahead of him if that extra tenth for his degree of difficulty was restored.

American officials protested the protest. International Gymnastic Federation rules stipulate that challenges to judges' rulings need to be issued on the spot - retroactive challenges are not permitted because it's impossible to guess how a different ruling would have impacted the other athletes differently. Hamm could have pushed himself a little harder, or Yang Tae-young might have relaxed a little and made other errors later. In addition, American officials noted that during Yang Tae-young's parallel bar routine, he made another error that three different judges missed, an error that if properly scored would have pushed him out of medal contention completely.

The International Gymnastics Federation confused the issue further when they suspended the original three judges but said that they could not change the ruling because the protest was not filed until after the meet. An event official later asked Hamm to voluntarily give his medal to Yang Tae-young even though that would have left him with no medal at all. American officials protested that athletes should not bear the responsibility of having to assess and correct errors that judges might make.

Judges make errors, particularly in competitions rated by "best" rather than more objective criteria like fastest, farthest, or highest. Competitive sports is serious business, and every year the organizing officials make improvements to preserve the integrity of their sport. Second-guessing and challenging a decision on the spot is one thing. The athletes have time to absorb and react to the current standings based on any changes to the decisions. But second-guessing field of play decisions long after the fact is unfair to all of the athletes involved. It opens the door to the possibility where winners never know if they've won or not, and losers feel they can continue the fight long after the competition is over.

Today, the Court of Arbitration for Sports - the highest sports court - ruled that Hamm gets to keep his medal, finally ending the saga. They agreed that "An error identified with the benefit of hindsight, whether admitted or not, cannot be a ground for reversing a result of a competition." Each Olympic sport has its own judging and scoring rules which the CAS cannot overturn except in situations where there is clear evidence of impropriety like bribery, coercion, or bias influencing the judging.

The CAS decision is the right rule for gymnastics.

In politics, John Kerry seeks to avoid the errors that the Korean team made in Athens, and that Al Gore made in 2000. He isn't going to wait until the competition is all over to assess challenges.

In 2000, Al Gore initially accepted the Fox News Networks' declaration of George Bush as the winner. He gave a concession speech and then retracted it the next day. While Bush was leaking news about his transition team's efforts, Gore was focused entirely on challenging the Florida vote after already conceding it. This left many Americans with the impression that the race was already all but over, that the Republicans were moving ahead with governing the country and that the Democrats knew that Bush won. In the minds of many Americans, the final result was an inevitability, and that hindered Gore's ability to continue to challenge the results.

Kerry won't make that mistake. His challenges will be immediate and on the field of play, even before the polls close. Thousands of attorneys and other professionals have been recruited to monitor polls around the country, particularly in key battleground states like Florida and Ohio where Republican dirty tricks have already started to manifest. In addition, six squads of attorneys and national campaign officials are positioned in key locations around the country with fueled airplanes, ready to be dispatched at a moment's notice at any point of the country.

If there are court challenges, you can bet that many of them will occur on the field of play while the polls are still open. The Democrats won't allow themselves to lose momentum a second time.


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