Tarnished Gold

The Athens Olympics live on, but now they’re focused just on America’s favorite sport -- litigation. This week, a phalanx of attorneys, including an entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles, performed before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland to argue that gymnast Paul Hamm be allowed to keep his ill-gotten gold. It may have been a powerful display of American litigious prowess, but it was a shameful day for American sport.

When Hamm blew his vault landing on the night of the all-around men’s gymnastics finals in Athens, NBC commentators were quick to say he was out of the running for the gold medal. They were right, of course, despite the dramatic, suitable-for-a-Wheaties-box comeback that followed. Hamm was given the gold, but only because the judges incorrectly tallied the results.

Yang Tae Young, the Korean gymnast who was awarded bronze, was the real winner that night, as we all know now. The judges mistakenly subtracted a tenth of a point from his parallel-bars performance because they set his highest possible score at 9.90, instead of 10. At issue was not a subjective judgment but a scorekeeping error -- akin, say, to a football team being awarded only 2 points for a field goal.

Trouble is, the Koreans and the International Gymnastics Federation were slow to realize what had happened -- too slow, according to Hamm’s army of lawyers. Yes, lawyers. There is apparently no room for good old-fashioned sportsmanship in, well, sports, certainly not in an event as crassly commercial as the Olympics.

The International Gymnastics Federation sent a letter to Hamm saying that Yang was the “true winner” and that, absent other sensible procedural remedies, Hamm should consider the gracious course of handing over the medal to his Korean counterpart. Kiss my legal briefs has been Hamm’s petulant response, and even his parents seem intent on holding on to his tarnished gold. The lawyers are advancing the cheeky argument that “field-of-play” calls can’t be reversed, which sounds sensible until you realize the field of play here involves arithmetic.


The Hamm farce provides the rest of the world with an entertaining -- if embarrassing -- look at American culture. Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), horrified that those menacing foreigners would want to pry away one of his constituent’s Olympic medals, is playing a starring role. He has taken on the gymnast’s cause as if it were a pressing national security matter, and young Hamm has reciprocated with -- what else? -- a campaign TV ad praising the caring politico. Hamm is also giving motivational speeches at $15,000 a pop.

What’s the message? Train hard, screw up and you can still win if the judges also screw up, as long as the statute of limitations on protests by your opponent has expired. Call us hopeless romantics, or shrewd capitalists, but we think Hamm could have doubled his speaking fee if he’d done the right thing and handed over the medal.