Sports court rules Hamm can keep gold

Friday, October 22, 2004

Paul Hamm can keep his Olympic gold medal.

Sports' highest court rejected a South Korean appeal Thursday, ruling that Hamm is the rightful champion in the men's all-around gymnastics competition at the Athens Games.

"The decision from CAS confirms what I've always felt in my heart, which is that I was champion that night and Olympic gold medalist," Hamm said. "I was just pleased it's all over with."

The decision by a three-judge panel from the Court of Arbitration for Sport ends a saga that began more than two months ago, when South Korea's Yang Tae-young claimed a scoring error cost him the title. Yang finished with the bronze medal.

Yang asked the court to order international gymnastics officials to change the results, and adjust the medal rankings so he would get the gold and Hamm the silver. But the judges dismissed the appeal, leaving Hamm with the gold and Yang with his bronze. Kim Dae-eun of South Korea was the silver medalist.

The verdict is final and cannot be appealed.

"An error identified with the benefit of hindsight, whether admitted or not, cannot be a ground for reversing a result of a competition," the judges said.

Yang could not be reached for comment, but the South Korean Olympic Committee said it accepted the ruling.

"We are sorry about the court's decision but accept it," the Koreans said in a statement. "We are sorry that we could not live up to the expectations of the people who have shown concern and encouraged us."

Hamm won the gold Aug. 18, rallying from 12th place with only two events left to become the first American man to win gymnastics' biggest prize.

But two days later, gymnastics officials discovered that Yang had been wrongly docked a tenth of a point on his second-to-last routine, the parallel bars. Yang ended up with the bronze, 0.049 points behind Hamm. Add that extra 0.100, though, and Yang would have finished on top, 0.051 points ahead of the American.

That, however, assumes everything in the final rotation played out the same way -- a big if.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) acknowledged the error and suspended three judges. But it said repeatedly it would not change the results because the South Koreans didn't protest until after the meet.

In their ruling, the judges said the Korean protest was submitted too late -- and added that the court was not in a position to correct results even if a mistake were admitted.

"The solution for error, either way, lies within the framework of the sport's own rules," the panel said.

In Athens, the South Koreans appealed to the U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee. It brought back memories of the figure skating scandal at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, when Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were given duplicate gold medals after a French judge said she had been "pressured" to put a Russian couple ahead of them.

But there were no such signs of impropriety in this case, and IOC president Jacques Rogge flatly refused to even consider the idea of giving Yang a gold medal.

Then FIG president Bruno Grandi confused the issue, writing a letter to Hamm and asking him to surrender the gold medal. In the letter, Grandi wrote, "The true winner of the all-around competition is Yang Tae-young."

Buoyed by that statement, Yang filed an appeal on the final day of the games with CAS.

The panel praised both gymnasts, saying they "have comported themselves with dignity, despite the controversy."

"They were the victims of this unusual case because a shadow of doubts has been cast over Hamm's achievement in winning the sport's most prestigious prize and because Yang may have been deprived of an opportunity of winning it," CAS said.

The tug-of-war over the medal has overshadowed Hamm's performance, one of the greatest comebacks in gymnastics history.

The defending world champion appeared to lose a chance at any medal, let alone the gold, when he botched the landing of his vault and stumbled backward, plopping down on a judges' table. His score of 9.137 dropped him to 12th place with only two events left.

But one by one, the gymnasts above him faltered. And Hamm was spectacular, closing with a pair of 9.837s on the parallel bars and high bar to win the gold.

"I feel like I had to win my medal in three ways, really," Hamm said last month in an interview with The Associated Press. "Obviously, in competition. Then with the media. Then in court. It really feels like I've been battling this whole time."

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