American gymnast Paul Hamm was erroneously awarded the gold medal in the men's all-around at the 2004 Olympics Wednesday night because of a scoring error that penalized bronze medal winner Yang Tae Young of South Korea, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) ruled Saturday.
Hamm will be allowed to keep the gold medal, however, because the federation refused to change the results, saying that South Korean Olympic officials filed their complaint too late. Instead, the sport's governing body suspended the three judges involved.
But that may not be enough to satisfy the disgruntled South Koreans, who are considering taking their grievance to a higher authority, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings on international sports are regarded as binding. Representatives of the South Korean delegation requested the paperwork needed to file an appeal Saturday, according to Matthieu Reeb, secretary general of the CAS, but no documents had been submitted by the end of the day.
The dispute took some of the sheen from Hamm's gold medal, the first all-around Olympic title won by an American man, and cast a cloud over a performance that was hailed as the greatest comeback in gymnastics history. Hamm plunged from first to 12th in the competition after botching the landing of his vault, then scored successive 9.837s (out of a perfect 10.0) on his last two events to win gold by a record razor-thin margin of 0.012 of a point.
The controversy is the latest in a growing list of squabbles over Olympic judging. The biggest scandal occurred at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, where a French figure skating judge tilted her scores in favor of a Russian duo over a more worthy Canadian pair. The judge later said she was pressured by her country's skating federation to favor the Russians. The International Olympic Committee responded by awarding a second gold medal to the Canadians.
In Hamm's case, no evidence of nefarious intent has emerged.
While two Romanian gymnasts who fell just short of winning medals complained that Hamm was scored too generously, Hamm's score wasn't the source of the South Koreans' objection. At issue was the score Yang received on his parallel bars routine, one of six events that comprise the all-around competition. Yang had performed the same routine earlier in the competition, and judges based the scoring on a 10.0 start value -- the highest possible. A start value is assigned to every gymnast's routine, reflecting its degree of difficulty. During Wednesday's all-around, judges dropped the start value to 9.9, which meant that he could have scored no higher than 9.9 even if he had performed it flawlessly.
After reviewing videotapes of the competition, FIG officials confirmed Saturday that the judges erred in assessing the difficulty of Yang's routine, depriving him of one-tenth of a point. Had Yang's routine been judged correctly, his final score (57.874 points, instead of 57.774) would have placed him ahead of Hamm for gold.
The dispute has boiled down to a question of timing, however, rather than athletic achievement.
Under FIG rules, objections over scoring must be stated during the competition, before the athletes complete the next apparatus. After that, no scores can be changed, and the only remedy is to sanction the judges. In this case, South Korea filed its protest after the competition ended.
"The judges' marks have to be accepted as a final decision and cannot be changed," the FIG stated in a news release. "In order to protect the integrity of the FIG, the judges, and to be able to maintain and ensure the highest possible judging standard at the Olympic Games, the FIG Executive Committee has decided to suspend the three technical officials concerned pending inquiry."
Hamm spent Saturday practicing for competitions on Sunday and Monday and could not be reached for comment.
Abe Grossfeld, head coach of the 1984 U.S. gold medal-winning men's gymnastics team, said the officials appear to have made an honest mistake -- the sort that is not uncommon in judging gymnastics.
Given that the South Korean complaint came after the fact, Grossman said he didn't think awarding a second gold to Yang would be appropriate. "They could if they wanted to, but it's not according to the rules," Grossfeld said. "If they award a second gold, it would sort of prove the Koreans [appealed] the right way. They didn't follow the rules. That rule has been in place for quite a while."
FIG officials did not identify the suspended judges. The Associated Press identified them as American George Beckstead, who was in charge of the panel that judged the parallel bars; Benjamin Bango of Spain; and Oscar Buitrago Reyes of Colombia.
U.S. gymnastics officials declined comment, referring all questions to FIG spokesman Philippe Silacci, who did not return a telephone message. South Korean officials also did not respond to telephone or e-mail messages.
IOC officials said they are relying on FIG to resolve the dispute and will not intervene unless approached by the sport's international governing body.
Hamm has a chance to win four more medals in addition to his team silver and individual gold. On Sunday he competes in the floor exercise and pommel horse finals. On Monday, he'll compete for medals on the parallel bars and horizontal bars.