American gymnast Paul Hamm will be allowed to keep the gold medal in the men's all-around, an international judicial body ruled yesterday, bringing to an end the controversy that has simmered since Hamm's come-from-behind performance more than two months ago at the Summer Olympics in Athens.
The ruling, by the Swiss-based Council of Arbitration for Sports, means that South Korea's Yang Tae Young will remain the event's bronze-medal winner despite a scoring error that deprived him of 0.10 point in the competition. There are no further avenues for appeal, so Hamm's status as the first American male gymnast to win all-around Olympic gold is secure.
"This is obviously a great day for me, and I'm proud to be the Olympic all-around men's gold medalist," Hamm said in a conference call. "The decision by CAS confirms what I've always felt in my heart: That I won the competition that night and am the Olympic all-around champion. I competed my heart out that night and followed the rules. It feels good to know that CAS also agrees with that."
Hamm, 22, said he expected to win the case all along, though thoughts of losing occasionally crept into his head. He said he slept well Wednesday night, knowing the verdict would come the next morning. At 6:15 a.m., he got that news -- and a longed-for sense of closure -- by telephone. He characterized it as a victory not only for him but also for sports.
"It really keeps the integrity of the sport by defending the competition," Hamm said. "People will lose interest in the sport if decisions aren't made until weeks later in courts."
The men's all-around event, the most prestigious title in gymnastics, consists of six routines (with "10" being a perfect score on a single event). Yang argued that he had been unfairly denied 0.10 point on the parallel bars in the Aug. 18 competition by judges who improperly scored his routine's degree of difficulty. After reviewing videotape, officials of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) agreed and suspended the three judges involved. But they refused to change the result because South Korean officials appealed the error too late, after the competition had ended.
Yang then appealed to the International Olympic Committee but was rebuffed. As the controversy dragged on, FIG president Bruno Grandi wrote Hamm a letter suggesting he surrender the gold as a gesture of sportsmanship. U.S. Olympic officials were outraged by what they viewed as pressure tactics, and Hamm was crushed.
"That was probably the toughest time for me," Hamm said.
That left Yang with one final option, and he argued his appeal to CAS in an all-day hearing in Switzerland on Sept. 27.
In dismissing Yang's appeal, CAS affirmed the essential arguments made by Hamm and his lawyers: that judges' decisions made on "the field of play" are not subject to review by judicial bodies unless fraud or impropriety is alleged; that South Korean officials failed to appeal in a timely manner; and that it would be mere speculation to conclude that Yang would have won the event if his parallel-bar score had been adjusted, given that it wasn't the final event of the competition.
But the verdict didn't vanquish all hard feelings. Hamm said he still feels that USA Gymnastics wasn't sufficiently supportive during the controversy and has written a letter to its board expressing that. He said he also wants an apology from FIG for suggesting he return the gold medal.
In the meantime, he and his representatives are attempting to revive marketing opportunities that were put on hold when his gold-medal status was thrown into question shortly after the competition. Wheaties, for example, halted plans to Hamm's image on a cereal box, the customary pop-culture salute to athletic achievement. Within hours of Thursday's ruling, Hamm was talking with publishers about a book deal; his agent, Sheryl Shade, hoped to resurrect the Wheaties promotion and a deal with a Wisconsin-based ice-cream maker was in the works.
"We've been keeping everyone on hold until the decision was out," Shade said. "Now we're hoping we can go out and finally declare that he is indeed the gold medalist, and there are no shadows on it and see what happens."
But given the fleeting nature of athletic fame, the two-month delay in capitalizing on Hamm's Olympic achievement surely exacted a financial toll, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "One of the unfortunate effects is that the window of opportunity typically is really the few weeks after the Games to really take advantage of those marketing opportunities," Swangard said. "As this played out, time was really his enemy."
Paul Hamm stood out at the Athens Games by becoming the first American man to win the all-around competition in gymnastics.