Court Rules Paul Hamm Can Keep Olympic Gold

Times Staff Writer

U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm is entitled to the gold medal in the men’s all-around event at the Athens Olympics, a sports tribunal ruled today in a decision affirming the essential notion that athletic competition goes by rules that decide winners and losers on the field of play, not in a courtroom.

Nearly two months after the close of the 2004 Games, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, in a case brought by aggrieved South Korean gymnast Yang Tae Young and the South Korean Olympic Committee, ruled that Hamm could keep the gold and Yang would have to be satisfied with bronze despite judging mistakes that marred the men’s all-around.

To rule otherwise, to rip the gold from Hamm, would be to lurch down an untenable course, one that would invite legal scrutiny of every umpire’s call or referee’s whistle, the three-member arbitration panel made plain.

Mistakes happen, but absent evidence of corruption in the judging, a game or match or meet has to be over when it’s over.

“Finality is in this area all important. Rough justice may be all that sport can tolerate,” the panel said.

Hamm, 22, a native of Waukesha, Wis., the first American to win the men’s all-around, said today in a teleconference with reporters: “This is obviously a great day for me,” adding that the decision “confirms what I always felt in my heart, that I was the champion that night and I am the Olympic all-around gold medalist.”

Whether the medal will forever be tarnished remains one of a number of issues yet unclear, with even today’s ruling noting that a “shadow of doubt has been cast over [Hamm’s] achievement in winning the sport’s most prestigious prize.”

Asked if Hamm had lost marketing or promotional opportunities because of the controversy, his business manager, Sheryl Shade, said today that he had been kicked off the cover of the Wheaties box — a traditional American homage to sports heroes. “We would obviously like to re-investigate that and see if it’s a possibility,” she said.

The situation has also strained the relationship between Hamm and officials at USA Gymnastics, and between Hamm and the international gymnastics federation, which goes by the acronym FIG. “That’s one thing I would really love to have, is an apology from FIG,” Hamm said. “I would love that. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, necessarily.”

The controversy also has sparked pressure on FIG to reform its scoring system, much as figure skating officials reformed their sport’s system after a judging scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

At the federation’s general assembly, which by coincidence is going on this week in Turkey, Bruno Grandi, FIG’s president, said he had proposed rules changes. He also said, according to a statement posted on the federation’s website: “I will go to the end to ensure that mistakes and biased judging are investigated and punished.”

International Olympic Committee spokeswoman Giselle Davies said it is “pleased” with today’s ruling and added: “It is worth adding that the IOC also openly expressed concern about judging problems during the Games, and confirmed that it would work with FIG to improve this.”

Hamm won the gold Aug. 18 after a spectacular final performance on the high bar, rallying after being in 12th place with only two events left.

He won also after a scoring error that cost Yang a crucial one-tenth of a point.

Judges mistakenly gave Yang’s routine a start value — a degree of difficulty — of 9.9, not 10.0, the maximum score for a perfect routine.

In the closest men’s all-around finish in Olympic history, Yang finished .049 points behind Hamm. The extra one-tenth of a point would have put Yang .051 ahead of Hamm. As it was, Hamm took the gold, Yang bronze and another Korean, Kim Dae Eun, the silver.

FIG suspended the judges who made the mistake. It refused to change the results, however, saying that the Koreans didn’t file a protest on time.

In a gesture of goodwill, the USOC initially considered a proposal to share duplicate gold medals.

According to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, U.S. Olympic Committee and Korean Olympic Committee officials went so far as to meet Aug. 22 with the International Olympic Committee and “proposed that two gold medals be awarded.”

But IOC President Jacques Rogge said no. Rogge did allow that if FIG wished to change the scores and “reallocate the medals,” the IOC would “respect” the federation’s action.

Then, on Aug. 26, Grandi, the federation president, asked Hamm to give up the gold. In a letter, Grandi said, “The true winner of the all-around competition is Yang Tae Young.”

The USOC said that was insulting and made clear that any talk of two medals was over.

But Yang and the Korean Olympic Committee said Grandi had it right in the letter, and appealed to the international court, which held a full-day hearing on Sept. 27 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Korean position is not without support.

Michael Josephson, a Los Angeles ethics expert who has served as an advisor on other issues to the USOC, said, “There are two competing issues here.

“One is a very powerful one to say judgments are final, final, final — let’s not re-open it.

“On the other hand, [sports results] should be accurate. And in the very unusual case — and I think it is unusual that it is objectively clear that the wrong person was awarded the medal — they ought to correct the situation.”

The decision today ends the legal wrangling — there can be no further appeal — and, in siding with the view that sports results must be final on the field, was clearly designed to blunt an emerging trend toward protest and litigation over Olympic judging controversies, one that had alarmed many sports and legal experts.

For years, CAS, the Olympic movement’s court of last resort, had sought to make clear that controversies on the field of play were not the stuff of lawsuits. The decision today — in a case that unlike most CAS decisions, drew an audience worldwide — makes it that much more emphatic.

“It’s good to see CAS reaffirm the [line of] field of play decisions. Hopefully this will reduce the number of field of play decisions that go to CAS in the first place,” said Howard Jacobs, a Westlake Village attorney and one of the leading sports lawyers in the United States.

“Unless there are absolutely extraordinary circumstances, going to a court system of any type is a slippery slope we have to stop,” said Penn State professor Charles Yesalis, a longtime observer of the Olympic movement.

“You have to have the contest decided on the field — so when fans leave the stands, they know who wins, and it’s final.”

Moreover, while sport depends on finality, sports federations and national Olympic committees could hardly afford to regularly litigate such cases. The USOC has spent more than $300,000 in lawyer and other costs related to the Hamm matter.

The trend toward litigiousness, experts have said, while attributable in part to the intensity of the stakes involved in winning an Olympic medal, is in large measure due to the IOC’s move at the 2002 Salt Lake Games to award duplicate gold medals to Canadian and Russian pairs figure skaters.

The IOC took that action after vociferous protests voiced by the Canadians that were aired and echoed on NBC and other broadcasters and that blossomed into a scandal that arced around the world — and the revelation by a French judge that she had been pressured by the French skating federation to favor the Russians.

IOC officials made plain while in Salt Lake City that such corruption is the only means by which rulings can be reviewed after a competition ends.

But by the time of the Athens Games, the message that sports officials in any number of countries apparently had taken to heart was that long, loud protests might accrue to individual or national benefit.

The 2004 Games produced protests in equestrian, swimming, boxing, rowing, fencing and artistic and rhythmic gymnastics.

In the gymnastics disciplines, protests were filed on behalf of Canadian, Russian, Greek, U.S. and Bulgarian athletes — and by the South Koreans.

“There’s been a lot of fighting for this medal,” Hamm said. “I felt like I won it three times already: in the competition, with the media and, finally, in the court.”

_ _ _