The dispute over whether Olympic gymnast Paul Hamm deserves to keep his gold medal from the 2004 Athens Games got its final hearing yesterday during 12 hours of testimony before the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.
No decision was reached, and none was expected. But the ruling, which could come in a matter of days, will bring an end to a controversy that has robbed much of the luster from Hamm's achievement in becoming the first American man to win the Olympic all-around gold.
Hamm, 22, was among the roughly 35 people invited to testify or observe the closed proceedings in Lausanne, Switzerland, and he said afterward that it gave him a welcome sense of closure.
"I'm just relieved the hearing is over," Hamm said in a conference call yesterday. "I'm looking forward to going back to the U.S. and joining the [post-Olympic gymnastics] tour and getting on with a somewhat normal life and not having to deal with this controversy anymore. . . . There is a sense of relief just because I truly feel this is the end of the road here, and once this decision is made it'll be final."
At issue is whether the men's all-around gold medal belongs where it is -- wrapped in a white sock and stored at Hamm's parents' home in Waukesha, Wis. -- or whether it belongs to South Korea's Yang Tae Young, who was awarded bronze after his parallel-bars routine was incorrectly scored.
Hamm has maintained since the Aug. 18 competition that he is the rightful gold medalist, arguing that he won the event fairly, finishing with the highest combined score on the six mandatory apparatus that make up the all-around. South Korean officials argue that Yang is the rightful champion because his combined score would have surpassed Hamm's if judges had not improperly docked him a tenth of a point on the "start value" (degree of difficulty) of his parallel-bars routine.
The sport's governing body, the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG), confirmed the error after reviewing videotape but refused to change the finishing order because South Korean officials didn't protest the mistake during the competition, as is required by the rules. FIG's attempt to persuade Hamm to surrender his gold medal as an act of sportsmanship was attacked as "deplorable" by the U.S. Olympic Committee, which promptly withdrew its support for awarding of a duplicate gold to Yang.
That led the South Koreans to CAS, whose decisions on disputes over international sports are considered binding. Hamm said yesterday that he would abide by its ruling. "If they determine by the rules of gymnastics that I should give back my medal, I will," Hamm said. Hamm also reiterated his admiration for Yang and expressed empathy for his struggles.
"Yang is a great athlete, and the dispute doesn't involve his or my actions," Hamm said. "I empathize with him and prefer if this could be resolved in the field of play."
Hamm didn't speak to Yang during the hearing but shook his hand before the proceedings began at 9:30 a.m. Among those attending were a half-dozen lawyers representing Hamm (including USOC general counsel Jeff Benz and Mark Levinstein of Washington-based Williams & Connolly); lawyers representing Yang; representatives of FIG; and the three arbitrators, from Germany, Kenya and Britain.
The testimony lasted until roughly 9 p.m. with only brief breaks.
According to people familiar with CAS, there are only two outcomes: Hamm keeps the gold medal or Hamm returns the gold and receives silver, while Yang takes gold. The South Koreans are not seeking a duplicate gold medal, and CAS doesn't have the authority to award one.
Benz presented three arguments on Hamm's behalf: The dispute was not subject to review by CAS because it concerned a judgment call of officials on the "field of play"; the South Koreans protested the scoring error too late; and it would be speculation to assume the competition would have ended the same way even if Yang's parallel bar score had been correct.