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Post Magazine: The Weight of Gold

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Wells Tower
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 13, 2004; 1:00 PM

After a stunning Olympic comeback -- and an equally stunning controversy -- U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm is just looking for a little balance.

Wells Tower, whose article about Hamm appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, Dec. 13, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about the article.

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Tower is a contributing writer to The Washington Post Magazine.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Wells Tower: Greetings, all, and many thanks for taking the time to join me today to discuss the fortunes and misadventures of Paul Hamm.

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Lansing, Mich.: Paul Hamm must have one heck of an agent to get a story written that doesn't contain one negative word about him.

It just makes me sick how he keeps claiming that the gold medal is rightfully his, because he "felt like a winner." Yes, the judges decided that he could keep it, but I understood that was because the Koreans filed their complaint too late. The classy thing for Paul to have done would have been to say to Young, "I know I wasn't the best gymnast out there that day, but it's not my fault that the judges made a mistake, so I'll share the gold medal with you." Hamm complains that people say he's an ugly American, but he really is since he is so arrogant that he won't admit that maybe he isn't the best men's gymnast in the world.

Wells Tower: Thanks for writing in. There are certainly plenty of people out there who share your opinion (I'm sure plenty of them will be writing in today). That said, neither I, nor the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, who heard the Korean complaint, happen to be among them.

I certainly didn't go into the reporting of this story convinced of the rectitude of Paul's position in the controversy. For the sake of the article, it would have been far juicier and more dramatic to be profiling a prideful, arrogant athlete refusing to relinquish his stolen glory. But the more familiar I became with the controversy's particulars, the feebler the Korean case seemed to me.

Consider:

a: That the scores a gymnast earns as a meet progresses (and the stress of competing against his competitors' scores), exert a terrific amount of psychological influence on the way he's going to perform. It would obviously be untenable to tell the first place runner the day after the marathon that actually, due to a technicality the third place winner is the rightful champ without having given the 1st place winner the opportunity to strive harder, to boost his efforts in the stretch. Paul knew the score he needed for a gold medal, based on the (admittedly flawed) standings on the field of play. Had he known he needed a higher score, he might have tried to strive for a higher score. Or perhaps he would have fallen apart. The point is, nobody can say with any certainty that the final standings would have turned out the same way had the mid-meet standings changed.

b. That Young's parallel bar routine contained an extra hold for which he would have been docked 2 tenths of a point, had the judges caught it, which would have given him a lower score. Should we only permit the judges the right to correct errors that hurt Young and not those which helped him?

c. Paul Hamm won the world championship in gymnastics in 2003, which in my opinion, adds a certain soundness to his credentials as the world's best gymnast.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Really interesting article. I am a 25 year old female, and I seem to have developed an enormous crush on Paul Hamm! Is he turning out to be a heartthrob? Are things serious with his girlfriend? Thanks!

Wells Tower: Aha. You are not alone, though I'm sorry to say the competition is rather fierce. Both Paul and Morgan receive admiring letters by the crateful. As far as I know things are pretty serious between him and his girlfriend, but feel free to query him. I think you can find an address for him at hammtwins.com

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Washington, D.C.: In reading the story I got the sense that Paul and Morgan really have no personalities whatsoever. Was that the case, or do you think they just shy away from any sort of media attention? Did you mean your story to portray them in that way?

Wells Tower: Great question. Paul and Morgan, of course, do have personalities, though what they don't seem to have are "personae." That is, though they are obviously quite famous, they remain very much themselves--a couple of soft spoken, surprisingly shy and humble guys who have spent far more time training in the gym than they have honing their talk-show banter. I'm sure the attention they've gotten has made them a little more self-enclosed and guarded, but I spent enough time with them that I feel like the quiet guilelessness both boys radiate in the piece is an accurate reflection of who they really are.

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Aspen Hill, Md.: I know you were focusing more on the aftermath of the controversy, but you didn't even mention what it was actually about. The sticking point (and the reason Paul won in the end) is that the Koreans did not follow the rules about protesting a judging error.

Wells Tower: Good point. In earlier drafts of the piece, we did have a section providing a more detailed account of the judging technicalities, but my editors and I ended up deciding that the judging controversy's finer points (as in the months since August, they've already been pretty well belabored by the media) would be less interesting to readers than what Paul's up to now.

But for the record, the controversy revolved around the fact that South Korean Gymnast Yang Tae-Young's parallel bars routine was given a possible start value (the routine's degree of difficulty) of 9.9, when it ought to have been a 10.0. These sorts of errors are fairly common in gymnastics, and it's perfectly permissible to protest them, provided that one protests the score during the meet (for reasons I described above) and not a day later, as the S. Koreans did with Hamm's contested gold. The 24 lag was one of the factors that killed their case.

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Capital Hill, Washington, D.C.: Fabulous athletes like Paul Hamm should take their remarkable discipline and go shake up places like Congress, the Democratic party, the media, and the corporate boardroom. Think Bill Bradley, Justice White, etc.

Wells Tower: Thanks for the comment. I'm not sure what Paul's political or corporate ambitions might be, but I'm sure that his achievements thus far will be a good springboard should he decide to pursue a non-gymnastic career in the public sphere. I'm certain that his dedication and discipline, as you put it, will serve him well in whatever direction he winds up taking.

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Washington, D.C.: Congrats on writing another article that captured the interest of this non-sports fan. Your portrayal of Martin Bashir and the 20/20 producers' attempts to "create" a story was priceless!

Wells Tower: Glad you liked the piece, and the 20/20 stuff. The 20/20 taping interested me because it seemed to embody rather perfectly the sort of fame the Hamms are enjoying these days. They've got enough celebrity cachet to attract people like Martin Bashir, yet gymnastics is an obscure enough sport, as far as most Americans are concerned, that no one seems entirely sure how you go about using a famous gymnast to boost ratings, sell products, etc. 20/20's slimming-match-by-proxy seemed like a particularly odd and inventive strategy. (For those of you who didn't read the piece, Paul and Morgan are going to be the subjects of an upcoming 20/20 special in which each of them has been paired up with an overweight family whom, over the course of a couple of months, they'll try to help lose weight. Whichever twin's family slims down the most "wins".)

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California: Men's gymnastics was not the only sport at the Olympics plagued by a scoring controversy. In one of the women's hurdles competition, one racer fell into another's lane in the finals and took both her and the other racer out. Yet officials declined to have the race rerun. And in the men's marathon, there were also calls for a double gold after a spectator attacked the race leader with only several miles to go -- he ended up finishing third. When the winners of those races held onto their golds in the face of controversy, no one attacked them nearly as much as Paul Hamm. It's unfair that this got blown up as much as it did, don't you think?

Wells Tower: Thanks for the comment, and yes, I do think it was unfair, and a poor bit of luck for Paul. Part of the problem was that the International Gymnastics Federation, instead of taking responsibility for their own error called on Paul (in what strikes me as a cowardly fashion) to let them off the hook by returning the medal. the media jumped on it, and the public loved the story. Stories that present opportunities for sanctimony and indignation, whether valid or not, always seem to have long legs in the press.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Is there anything less significant than a male gymnast?

Wells Tower: I don't know. A female shot-put champion, perhaps? Male gymnasts do have a hard road. It was interesting to check in with Mitch Gaylord who, despite his success in the 84 games, and his film outings, is now making his living doing infomercials. Not to cast aspersions on the infomercial industry, but it does strike me as somewhat lamentable that after dedicating the first two and half or so decades of your life to this sport, and being among the world's best at it, you have to sort of begin life anew once the Olympic fanfare fades.

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Washington, D.C.: Watching Paul Hamm win the gold after botching his vault and being esentially written out of the medals was one of the most breathtaking and inspirational athletic feats I've ever seen. If it weren't for the ensuing contreversy, I'm sure thousands of high school coaches would be showing that performance to their teams as an illustration of why an athelete should always give his/her all and never be discouraged by a setback.

It's unfrotunate that a scoring dispute was so mismanaged by the judges and the Olympic Committee that it ended up tarnishing the image of an athlete who had no part in the error.

Wells Tower: Nicely put. Many thanks writing in.

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Washington, D.C..: I know it was incidental to your article, but I was appalled by the behavior of the 20/20 crew. Have you received any response from them as to how their personnel were portrayed? Let's hope those poor families get wise and bail on the segment.

Wells Tower: Thanks for the comment. I haven't heard anything from 20/20 yet. Perhaps they'll drop in on our chat today.

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Washington, D.C.: Based on your impression of Hamm, do you think that if the decision had gone the other way--giving the gold to the Korean gymnist because of a scoring mistake and knocking him down to silver--Hamm would have accepted it, the same way he seemed to feel the Korean gymnist should have, or would have have tried to appeal the decision?

Wells Tower: I couldn't say how Paul might have behaved if the decision had been reversed. I'm sure he would have been crushed. As I've said, he didn't strike me as an arrogant or combative person, but whether he would have quietly abided by a different decision, I really can't speculate.

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Alexandria, Va.: Can you elaborate on the LA Times column? (In the magazine, you called it an editorial, but I wonder if it was an op-ed columnist?) Were you able to get in touch with him? Did you feel his remarks were inappropriate? I feel a great deal of compassion for Paul Hamm, because I think a lot of male radio sports talk guys targeted him over and over again, and I blame some of it on their personal biases against men in gymnastics. As a young girl, I took gymnastics for a few years, and noticed how most boys, after a while, would move away from the sport, often for fear of being made fun of because the sport isn't considered manly enough, though these gymnasts' athletic prowess is second to none, in my opinion.

Wells Tower: To the best of my knowledge, the LA Times piece did run as an editorial, and no, I didn't speak with its author. We were already sufficiently pressed for space in the piece, that we didn't really have room for a closer analysis of the Times story. And without it in front of me, I hesitate to give you a critique of the article. What moved me most about was seeing how Paul's mother responded to the nasty press about her son.

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Anonymous: Should have and could have's: Y'know, during the diving (another questionable sport with subjective scoring) the commentator said, paraphrasing "if the judges don't see it, they can't penalize you for it". That being said, the point about Young's quibble on the whateverthehell bars is moot. There is no replay in gymnastics.

Hamm is a punk, on par with the basketball trash that represented the US

Wells Tower: Thanks for writing in. Though I'm not entirely clear on your point, as you seem to disdain both Hamm and Young. But there you are.

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Washington, D.C.: To those people who continue to attack Hamm, I would like to point out that the South Koreans benefitted from a scoring snafu in boxing a few years back in the Seoul games and no one called for that boxer to return his gold. So why only Hamm?

Wells Tower: Thanks for the comment. I wasn't aware of the boxing controversy, but thanks for bringing it to the conversation.

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Washington, D.C..: Your paragraph (a) in response to the first question in this chat is the point that should have been made this summer, but for some reason wasn't by Hamm or any U.S. officials. Compare the situation to a hypothetical basketball game where a player from team A hits a three pointer at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but it's incorrectly counted as a two pointer, and then team B hits a two pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime, and then wins in overtime. Should team A be awarded the victory after the error is discovered? No, because you are stripping from team B the possibility to win by hitting a three pointer at the buzzer and winning in overtime.
Having said that, I don't fault the first questioner because Hamm came across as whiny and unsportsmanlike in his comments to the press at the time. BUT I don't fault him for that -- why wasn't he given media coaching by the U.S. Gymnastic Federation when this whole thing happened? Even an inexperienced media coach could have told him how to approach interviews and how to come across much, much better than he did. Did Hamm say anything along those lines to you?

Wells Tower: Great comment. I actually didn't see any of Paul's media appearances in the immediate wake of the scandal, so I can't speak with any authority on that score. In fact, I knew very little about Hamm or the controversy when the assignment came my way. If Paul came across poorly in his televised remarks, I can imagine why. He felt pretty much blindsided by the whole controversy; I'm sure he had strong feelings about it, and perhaps most importantly, he's a professional athlete (and a plain spoken one, at that), not a pro PR agent. But no, Paul didn't mention any particular regrets he had about any interviews he'd done.

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Arlington, Va.: One aspect in all of the calls for Paul Hamm to show "sportsmanship" was that he could not do many of the things he was being asked to do. If I recall correctly, his choices were to fight or to forfeit the gold. He does not have the power to "demote" himself to silver or bronze, or to award someone else a duplicate gold in order to share the title. No athlete does. The sport's governing body and IOC have to agree to do that sort of thing, and they refused. It is asking a lot for him to give up everything.

Wells Tower: Great comment. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: Do the Hamm twins plan to train for the next Olympics or World Championships or do they plan to go in a different direction?
Thanks!;

Wells Tower: Yes, the Hamms are planning to continue their gymnastics careers, and barring any major injuries, both Paul and Morgan are hoping to compete for the US in the 2008 games. They're also hoping to finish their college degrees in the meantime.

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Wells Tower: It looks as though we're about out of time. Many thanks to everyone who took the time to write in today, and my apologies to those whose questions I didn't have time to get to. It's been a pleasure.

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