The final night of gymnastics competition at the 2004 Games ended with another black eye for the beleaguered sport as fans at Olympic Indoor Hall turned their rage against a panel of judges that delivered a score they didn't agree with.
For 81/2 minutes they shouted and shook their fists, bringing the competition to a standstill and transforming the venue for gymnastics, the most artistic sport of the Summer Games, into an arena better suited for professional wrestling.
And for the second time in six days, caught in the middle of a furor he didn't create, was American Paul Hamm, a mild-mannered Midwesterner whose Olympic glory has been shrouded by controversy at every turn, it seems, since he arrived in Athens.
Hamm drew the ire of South Koreans last week when he won gold in the individual all-around, aided in part by a judging error that penalized South Korea's top gymnast.
Monday night Hamm found himself in the path of irate Russians who all but stormed the floor to get their hands on the judges who gave defending champion Alexei Nemov a 9.725 (out of a perfect 10) for a high-bar routine that drew gasps for its daring and inventiveness. Hamm was up next on the high bar, but couldn't start his routine amid the jeers and whistles.
The situation deteriorated from there.
Nemov and his coach stood to applaud the mob, fanning the furor. Judges huddled while officials scurried to and fro. And with no explanation, the scoreboard suddenly changed, posting a 9.762 -- a higher score for Nemov but hardly enough for a medal. The announcer's plea for calm went ignored, and only the Russian , who took the floor at Hamm's request, motioned for quiet and applauded his supporters.
No sooner had order been restored than anger flared again when Hamm earned a 9.812 -- higher than Nemov -- for a routine that was hardly as eye-popping or entertaining.
When the competition ended, Hamm had picked up his third medal of the Olympics, a silver, to add to his all-around gold and team silver. Along with the silver that Carly Patterson had won on balance beam earlier in the night, that brought the tally of U.S. gymnastics medals to nine at these Olympics -- a rousing success for a nation that was shut out at the 2000 Games.
But the picture was hardly so rosy for the sport, whose image was marred here by scoring irregularities, allegations of favoritism and petulant behavior by its greatest stars. Among Olympic sports, only figure skating has taken such a beating in recent years.
The gymnastics finale also left more questions than clarity in its wake.
Hamm's status as the all-around champion remains in dispute. The sport's governing body, the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG), has acknowledged that South Korea's Yang Tae Young was unfairly denied a tenth of a point for his parallel bar routine, which would have vaulted him ahead of Hamm for gold. But FIG refuses to change the finishing order despite protests from the South Korean Olympic delegation.
U.S. Olympic officials have met twice with their South Korean counterparts in an effort to resolve the controversy. On Monday they announced they wouldn't oppose the awarding of a second gold medal to Yang. But that decision rests with the International Olympic Committee, which isn't likely to award a second medal unless requested to do so by the FIG, which considers the matter closed.
Meantime, some have privately suggested that Hamm could resolve the whole mess by simply surrendering his gold. He indicated Monday he has no intention of doing so.
"At this point in time I'm not planning to give away my medal," Hamm said. "If the governing bodies decide that should be the case, then I will."
As for the perplexing revision of Nemov's high-bar score, FIG's president refused to comment, walking away when reporters approached him afterward. Neither gymnasts nor coaches could make sense of it, either.
At least one of the judges who changed his score, a Malaysian, signaled immediately that he had made an error, and his score for Nemov was boosted from 9.60 to 9.75. But it's unclear what prompted the other judge, a Canadian, to raise his score from 9.65 to 9.75.
Hamm's coach, Miles Avery, told reporters: "I certainly hope that some of you get a chance to talk to FIG representatives and say, 'Why were the scores changed after the crowd was so wild?' Is that all it takes for a score to be raised? I don't know."
Gymnastics scoring is a mind-bending process even to insiders. A panel of eight judges determines each score. Two of those judges determine the start value, awarding a value to each routine's degree of difficulty (10.0 is the highest). The remaining six judges focus on the execution, deducting from that start value in tenths and hundredths for errors big and small.
Unlike a 100-meter dash, however, the finish isn't necessarily tidy. Like figure skating, gymnastics is a subjective sport in which one judge's taste may not reflect another's.
Said Morgan Hamm, Paul's twin and the fourth-place finisher on high bars: "In a sport like gymnastics, you have to accept that it's subjective and people are going to see things a certain way, and it might not be in your favor all the time. I think any gymnast knows that when he walks on the floor."
Yet questions of favoritism are sure to linger.
Nemov apparently felt the high-bar judges were biased against him. He spoke briefly to Russian media as he exited the building, and no official interpreter was present. One Russian reporter, asked to translate, said, "He says that everything was decided before."
Russia's Svetlana Khorkina was even more pointed in her comments to Russian journalists after being edged by Patterson for gold in the women's all-around on Thursday. Khorkina said the competition was rigged in favor of the American.
Patterson just smiled when asked about the comments Monday. "I guess she's just kind of a sore loser," Patterson said. "I don't care what she says. I got the gold."