washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Columnists > Sally Jenkins

With This Suit Comes a Tailor-Made Fiasco

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, August 28, 2004; Page D12

ATHENS -- The Paul Hamm affair has now occupied 10 of our days here and what's plain is that the suits have taken over the Olympics. They've taken over with their action and with their inaction, their endless political digressions, wrangles and maneuvers. For classic suit behavior, look no farther than the aptly named Bruno Grandi, the grandee of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), who dared to use the words "fair play" to Hamm while pulling the dirtiest trick on him.

Is there anything more germlike than a suited bureaucrat who tries to use the sweat of athletes for his own political purposes? One thing suits don't like is to be embarrassed publicly, and Grandi has been embarrassed. First his judges messed up the scoring in the men's all-around final, and then Grandi failed to contain the crisis and resolve the issue. So what does he do? He tries to shift all the blame to Hamm, a 21-year-old competitor. He sends a public letter to Hamm suggesting that he give the all-around gold medal to South Korea's Yang Tae Young voluntarily.

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"Dear Paul," the letter began. Above, printed in large black letters, was the word "Fairplay." In the text of the letter, Grandi smarmily suggested, "The FIG and the IOC would highly appreciate the magnitude of this gesture." Grandi also stated that the Korean "is the true winner of the gold medal."

Now, in my opinion the South Korean was deserving of the gold. Hamm landed in the laps of the judges on his vault, and it doesn't do to give the gold to the guy who landed in someone's lap. And it would indeed be an important and magnanimous gesture for Hamm to surrender the medal to Yang, as I've previously suggested. Hamm would be the biggest winner of all if he did so. But it's one thing for me to suggest it, as a matter of personal opinion, and quite another for Grandi, whose letter carries the weight of officialdom. With that letter, Grandi officially kneecapped Hamm. And he did it in order to take the heat off himself. A lot of people screwed up in this situation, but Paul Hamm wasn't one of them. All Hamm did that night was look up at the scoreboard and see his name in 12th place, and then give the performance of his life. He did his part. It was the judges who didn't do theirs, aided by the mushiness of FIG and the International Olympic Committee. To make Hamm somehow officially responsible for this is utterly wrong.

Grandi is in an unhappy and unpopular position, but guess what? That's what you ask for when you put on a suit and aspire to officialdom. Sometimes tough choices come along with the free passes and luxury hotel suites and the ice sculpture buffets. If you don't have the stomach and the fiber to handle messes like this, you shouldn't wear the suit.

The rules in this case are very clear, if unsatisfying: Neither FIG nor the IOC can overturn a judging result unless there is evidence of corruption, which there isn't. The judges made a mistake, a bad one. What Grandi is obliged to do is to firmly and consistently tell the South Koreans that he's very sorry, but the result stands. Instead, with his craven and waffling letter, Grandi attacked Hamm's honor, undermined his judges and compromised the Olympic process.

Judging results have to be defended by officials even when wrong because otherwise every event in the Games would be open to constant challenge and appeal, a corrosive chain reaction. If the South Koreans really want to press the issue, let's go all the way back to 1988, and they can hand over Roy Jones Jr.'s gold medal in boxing, one of the worst cheats in the history of the Games. That lovely incident resulted in judges being banned for life. But Korea still has the medal.

There's a bigger suit here who has failed to maintain a firm grip on these Games, and he's IOC President Jacques Rogge. I'm about to declare him a failure. There have been some clearly defining moments for Rogge in the past two weeks, specific instances when he could have made firm statements on some troubling matters, and didn't. The first came when an Iranian judo champion refused to wrestle an Israeli on political grounds, a violation of every rule and tenant of the IOC charter. Rogge did not lift a finger, claiming the issue did not rise to the IOC level. The second came when President Bush's campaign aired a commercial using the Olympics for political purposes. Again, Rogge remained utterly inert. Rogge may think he quelled these controversies by maintaining his silence, while laying responsibility for them on underling federations. In fact he has profoundly weakened the Olympics, left them open to any bullying politician.

This is another important juncture for Rogge. In this case, he seems willing to be more firm. He said the IOC will not reverse the Hamm decision or even tolerate the awarding of a second gold medal. "The IOC is very consistent in its position: As long as the federation gives a result, and as long as there is no proof of manipulation or corruption, we will accept the result," he said. "We accept that human error is unavoidable in judging and refereeing. . . . We are not going to give medals for so-called humanitarian or emotional reasons."

But Rogge needs to go one step further. He should reprimand Grandi for fouling up the process, and for sacrificing an athlete to his political vanity. The Koreans and Grandi have talked a lot about "the honorable thing" in the last day. Rogge should end all such talk. He should tell the Koreans and Bruno Grandi to do the honorable thing, and leave Paul Hamm alone.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company