ATHENS - As Paul Hamm over-rotated on his landing after the vault and tumbled into the judges' table, his dreams of an all-around gold seemed to be falling away. His distastrous landing left him in 12th place with only two events to go, a perilous position for someone with medal hopes.
But Hamm kept on, finishing first in the parallel bars portion of the all-around, then watching as competitor after competitor fell or made other uncharacteristic mistakes. Suddenly, he was back in first going into the horizontal bar, the final event, but it was close. He'd need something close to perfect to win the gold.
Well, he was something close to perfect. His 9.837 score in the horizontal bar topped the competition, making him the first American male to win all-around gymnastics gold.
It hadn't been easy for Hamm to win the gold medal, and it wasn't easy for him to keep it, either. After the results were posted, South Korea's delegation protest, saying that Yang Tae-Yeong, the bronze medalist, had been unfairly docked points for his parallel bar routine; the Koreans said his routine had been given a starting value of 9.9, when it should have been a 10.0; the difference would have been enough to give Yang the gold.
The Americans countered with two points: first, they said that Yang had made a mistake in his routine that hadn't been caught, and that he should have been deducted 0.2 points, which would have dropped him from medal contention; second, they said that had Yang's score been assigned properly, Hamm, who went after Yang, would have altered his approach and tried a more difficult routine himself in an attempt to make up the difference.
The FIG, gymnastics' international governing body, declined to change the results, accepting South Korea's argument about improper scoring but saying the protest came too late in the competition to overturn the results. The FIG wrote a letter to Hamm saying that they would not strip him of his gold, but saying that him returning the medal on his own would be in the best interest of sportsmanship; the U.S. federation, outraged, refused to forward the letter, instead writing a letter of complaint to the FIG.
After all the political hang-wringing, Hamm is still recognized as the 2004 all-around gold medalist, the only American male with that distinction.
Hamm's final event, the horizontal bar: