BEIJING -- Raj Bhavsar is gentle with his words, calm enough to perform gymnastics on the still rings -- where any movement, any quiver of the equipment is a deduction -- and yet strong enough to have withstood the ultimate disappointment that a potential Olympic athlete can suffer.
Being named an alternate. Twice.
Alexander Artemev has suffered the heartbreak of an alternate once. He was teary-eyed and discouraged in June when his extravagant mistakes on his signature event, pommel horse, had seemingly kept him out of the six-man starting lineup.
But when the U.S. men’s team opens competition Saturday at the National Indoor Stadium, Bhavsar, 27, and Artemev, 22, will be replacements for the twins. Within 10 days, the U.S. team lost all its Olympic experience when first Paul Hamm and then Morgan Hamm withdrew because of injuries.
Paul Hamm was the defending Olympic all-around gold medalist and along with Morgan led the U.S. to a team silver medal in Athens.
“I can’t replace Paul Hamm,” Bhavsar said. “No one person can. Because I know that, I don’t feel any extra pressure. So anyone can say Raj isn’t Paul, but so what? Who is?”
That was the sentiment expressed by Artemev late Thursday after Morgan Hamm withdrew because of an ankle injury. Hamm has been limping on a sore left ankle for more than two months. He had taken two cortisone shots but on Thursday night decided that the pain of landing floor and vault routines was a detriment to the team and a hazard to himself.
Saturday’s competition serves as qualification for the team final and individual all-around and event finals. Eight of the 12 teams advance to the team finals, and the top 32 all-arounders (no more than two per country) and top eight on each apparatus (no more than two per country) also move on.
Defending world champion China is the overwhelming gold-medal favorite. Japan, Korea, Germany, Romania, Russia, Belarus, the U.S. -- any of them could medal, but outside of Japan and Korea, none seems certain to make the team final.
Paul Hamm broke a bone in his hand at the national championships in May and was put on the team anyway. But on July 28, Hamm reluctantly withdrew. He had become painfully aware that time wasn’t on his side. The only consolation was that the replacement was Bhavsar.
“He deserves it,” Hamm said. “He’ll do great.”
Bhavsar nearly quit the sport after he didn’t make the Athens team four years ago, despondent and feeling that his best qualities of leadership and consistency were not appreciated enough.
But the lure of gymnastics, of daily training, of pushing himself, of inhaling the chalk dust and feeling his body get strong -- and also his belief that a trip to the Olympics was something he needed -- drew Bhavsar back. If any single gymnast could have been voted onto this team, by his teammates and coaches and fans and even the media, it would have been Bhavsar.
There wasn’t a vote, though, just the cold calculations of computer printouts and numbers. When the 2008 team was named, Bhavsar was one of the three alternates and not one of the six starters.
“I had said nothing could take away my sense of inner accomplishment,” Bhavsar said of being named an alternate a second time. “But I found out as the days progressed that living those words was a challenge. I had to pull out every tool to keep going.”
Before the team had been announced last June, Paul Hamm said he couldn’t imagine a U.S. squad that didn’t include Artemev. Yet a day later Artemev had been left off.
“It hurts so much,” Artemev said. “I don’t really know how I’m going to go on and keep working. I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
In 2006 Artemev won a pommel horse bronze medal at the world championships, the first U.S. man to medal on the apparatus in 27 years. Yet at the 2007 world championships, Artemev had a conspicuous fall in the same event, and he had three major mistakes during the Olympic trials this year.
Now the U.S. team will look to the inconsistently brilliant Artemev and the ever-hopeful Bhavsar to replace the Hamms’ star power.