If you want Olympic controversy, don't hang around basketball or water polo or even track. Fabulous results are dramatic, but all except the most historic recede with time. If you want to see raised ire and seriously righteous indignation mixed with intense nationalism, there are three Olympic venues for you: figure skating, boxing and gymnastics, the latter two of which we have in the Summer Games.
Show me a sport that is dependent on judging, and I'll show you accusations, allegations and denials. Boxing has been rather strangely free of judging controversy for consecutive Olympics, which is downright disappointing if you prefer scandal with your competition. Gymnastics had a little taste of drama late Wednesday, which amounts to nothing more than sour grapes if you believe U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm executed one of the great come-from-behind victories in the sport's Olympic history, but a miscarriage of justice if you're the Korean gymnasts relegated to bronze and silver, or the Romanians, who apparently didn't want to stand by in silence.
Romanian gymnast Ioan Silviu Suciu said after Hamm's completely unanticipated victory in the men's individual all-around event, "The only thing I can say is that the USA got something more than it deserved."
And another Romanian gymnast, Marian Dragulescu, said, "Everyone got a fair judgment, with the exception of the USA that got a little bit more."
For those of you who didn't see Hamm, an Opie Taylor-like little dude from a small Wisconsin town, win the gold medal and instantly become an Olympic star, let's recap:
Hamm, the world champion in the all-around event, staggered, teetered and fell while landing his vault. That dumped him from first to 12th place with only two events remaining. "I'd never fallen on the vault before, never in competition," Hamm said Thursday morning. "I thought I had lost myself any chance at a medal. I thought, 'How am I ever going to dig myself out of this hole?' My initial thought was, 'That's it.' "
That's certainly what the Koreans and Romanians -- and at least one American sportswriter -- thought as well. But then one of those inspiring Olympic moments came from nowhere. Just as Hamm began thinking, "Okay, I can still win bronze. I can do this," his personal coach, Miles Avery, said to Hamm, "It's not impossible, Paul. Go out and score two 9.8s."
Avery, the head coach at Ohio State, smiled at the retelling of the story. "Of course, he hadn't scored a 9.8 yet. [But] I knew it was in him."
Avery also noticed the tension was unusually high on the floor with gymnasts pacing and fretting, so many knowing gold was within reach. The competitors ahead of Hamm were making mistakes, too. "They kept coming back and coming back," Avery said.
Except Hamm. He got his 9.8s -- 9.837, to be exact. "They don't want to give anybody 9.9, and 9.8s are very rare air," Avery said.
Because the field was so bunched and because nobody separated himself from Hamm, he went from 12th back to first. Avery said: "It wasn't a stretch. I don't think he got any help at all. I thought [other competitors] got helped in some places. I thought he got underscored on the floor rings."
Asked if he had heard comments from the Romanians that suggested he'd been unfairly handed the gold medal that was hanging around his neck by the judges, Hamm said be believed he earned the medal by performing near perfectly in the five other phases of the all-around, then added, "I think it's upsetting to some of the other gymnasts to see me win with a mistake . . . that you didn't perform as well as other Olympic champions did."
That's it in a nutshell. The other competitors, not to mention those skeptical of Olympic judges, wonder how you can fall, literally, to 12th in the standings, then do enough in just two events to make it back to first. When stuff like this happens in figure skating, when people try to judge from their sofas and see a skater fall yet win while others stay on their feet and finish back in the pack, folks scream bloody murder. It's as close as the Olympic set gets to Monday morning quarterbacking.
Not that the gymnastic judges have ever been called into question the way skating and boxing judges have in recent Olympic history. Skating judges, traditionally, are bigger divas than the skaters, showing up to look at practices and essentially determining through their own self-importance the favorites before the start of the event. Remember, we're only two years away from that French judge being suspended after that Salt Lake City Olympic fiasco that was so unforgivably bad that an extra gold medal was ultimately awarded to the Canadian pairs as a make good.
And don't get me started on Olympic boxing. The judges' decision to award gold in Seoul to a Korean boxer who had been beaten senseless by American Roy Jones in the final could be the most offensive episode of judging in Olympic history.
(We even had a moment at the pool Thursday night when American swimmer Aaron Peirsol was disqualified after winning the 200-meter backstroke for making an illegal turn, then within 20 minutes reinstated as the winner after a successful appeal to the judges. Goodness, is there no safe haven from Olympic judges?)
Nothing so egregious happened in Hamm's victory Wednesday night. The kid will be a guest on Leno or vault over some dead body on "Law & Order" this fall. What's done is done. And if certain competitors hate seeing someone awarded victory after an obvious mistake, they also have to admire a person who crash lands, gets up, maintains his composure on the biggest stage of all, and turns in the performance of his life on both the parallel bars and the high bar. To earn the medal the kid had to exhibit some mettle. Only a champ has the resolve to climb out of that kind of hole.
As Avery said in the strongest and most convincing defense of his pupil, "It's like falling down, then getting up and winning a sprint."