By Mark Da Cunha

After three out of six rotations in the Men’s All-around Olympic Gymnastics, American gymnast Paul Hamm was ranked first place in the standings. His next event was the vault. Hamm’s vault was to be a Tsukahara–named after Japanese gymnast Mitsuo Tsukahara. It was ranked a 9.9 out of 10 for difficulty, in part because of its’ two and a half twists leading into a blind landing. No easy feat. But Hamm had never missed a vault landing in competition. Ever.

The expectation that Paul Hamm–the reigning world champion in Men’s gymnastics–was going to win the gold medal in the Men’s All-around Olympic Gymnastics was more than halfway to becoming a reality.

That expectation was shattered as Hamm crashed into the Judge’s table while stumbling during the landing on the vault. Hamm dropped from 1st to 12th place as he finished 22nd on the vault (out of 23 competitors) with a score of 9.137.

With only two events left to go, a depressed American crowd in the Olympic Hall looked on in silence. Surely Hamm’s dream of being the first American to win the Olympic all-around gold medal was over.

Or was it?

As least I thought so as I watched Hamm–the reigning world champion gymnast–ever the perfectionist, stumble as he tried to stick a landing that could have perhaps been partly saved with a small adjustment step. But Hamm is a perfectionist. He is the kind of man who pushes himself not merely to victory, but to greatness. A great gymnast does not take small adjustment steps, but sticks their landings. So rather than take a small step to prevent his fall, Hamm consciously held his feet in place in order to make a perfect landing. Unfortunately, in this one instance, the price of failing to take that small adjustment step was an even larger fall, as Hamm’s body did not obey his mental directions. Or in the gymnast’s own words, “In the air I felt fine, and then when I landed I felt weak in my legs and just lost control…”

I walked away from my television unable to watch. I do not mind seeing great athletes lose because their competitors achieved something greater. But, I hate to see an athlete lose because of the kind of mistake that an athlete of Hamm’s caliber performed. It’s like watching Pete Sampras crash out in the second round of Wimbledon to a low-ranked journeyman. That kind of stuff is not supposed to happen.

Ever since he was a young child, Hamm had “day-dreamed about winning the Olympics thousands of times.” How would you feel in such a situation? Hamm felt a huge wave of depression as he struggled to fight back tears. “I was really depressed because I thought I ruined everything with the vault” said Hamm of his psychological state after the fall.

Many a mortal at this point would have folded. But not Hamm. Rather then blaming the Athenian Gods, or complaining about the malevolence of the universe, or crying foul at being a puppet to The Fates, Hamm chose an alternate course of action: he chose to think. Hamm realized that he was the master of his destiny. The results of that philosophy brought on a new set of possibilities: he could salvage his Olympics by performing greatly in the next two rotations; he could achieve a strong finish; he could win a third-place medal. Or, in Hamm’s words, “At that point in time I decided I was going to go after the bronze medal.” (NBC)

In the face of embarrassment and failure, with the flick of a mental switch, the young American gymnast’s dreams were reborn from the ashes.

The next event for Hamm, was the parallel bars. His goal was to give it the best performance of his life. He did. With little left to lose, Hamm achieved his best score of the night on the parallel bars–a 9.837. This score moved Hamm into fourth place. Commented Hamm later, “I realized that I had brought it back from a point where I felt I had no chance…I brought it back to a point where I was thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going up on high bar, I have a chance to win an Olympic medal here, I’m going after it.’ That’s the mindset I went into that event with.” (NBC)

It was in the last event of the rotation–the high bar–that Hamm left the crowd, and I, nearly speechless. Where the previous gymnast spun around the bar with both hands, Hamm circled it even faster as he held on with one. The American flew through the air, effortlessly spinning around the bar while precariously attached to it by five small fingers. He was like a large planet orbiting a long cylindrical moon held to it by a string. Hamm followed the one-arm maneuver with an even more difficult one of three blind release moves as he let go of the bar only to come back and catch it as he spun around it. This time there was no string to hold the orbiting planet in place–only the laws of physics and Paul Hamm’s ability to use his mind and body to demonstrate them. All that was left was his dismount–and landing. And then–unlike the vault–Hamm stuck his landing with both arms raised proudly in the air. The crowd roared in approval.

Hamm needed a score of 9.825 to achieve gold–he scored a 9.837 in the high bar for a total score of total score of 57.823– a mere 12-thousandths of a point ahead of his closest competitor (South Korea’s Kim Dae Eun whose total score was 57.811) in the closest finish ever in Olympic Men’s Gymnastics history. Paul Hamm had pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in Olympic history.

Said Hamm of his victory,

“I think I probably day-dreamed about winning the Olympics thousands of times…I did not every picture myself having a mistake and then winning. I would have loved to have finished the competition flawlessly, but at the same time it shows how strong my character was. I wasn’t going to let it go. I really had to fight for what I wanted.” (NBC)

In a world where to be “only” human is to be a “Hero” defeated by a “tragic flaw”, or a “sovereign” dictator that murders innocents, or a moocher seeking welfare off the backs of others, Paul Hamm’s quest for gold is an example of what makes a human being human: the ability to apply ones’ mind in concentrated physical effort over an extended period of time to achieve a long-range goal in the face of obstacles. Thank you Mr. Hamm for proudly demonstrating the actuality of the human potential in all of us. Be proud of your achievements–you earned them.


Update (August 21, 2004):
According to the BBC:

Three gymnastics judges were suspended on Saturday for a key scoring error which resulted in American Paul Hamm winning the men’s all-round gold. The mistake on Wednesday cost South Korean bronze medallist Yang Tae-young a tenth of a point needed to win. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) upheld the South Korea’s protest but said Hamm would keep his medal. After reviewing the results, FIG officials confirmed he should have been awarded a start value of 10. He scored a 9.712 on the event, but with the extra .1, he would have finished with 57.874 points and defeated Hamm by .051….Yang finished third, another .037 behind Kim. [BBC]

However, MSNBC reports:

The Los Angeles Times reported that U.S. Olympic officials said they would consider supporting South Korean officials in a bid to award duplicate gold medals to Hamm and Yang. The International Gymnastics Federation suspended the two judges who determined the start values — Benjamin Bango of Spain and Oscar Buitrago Reyes of Colombia — along with the judge who oversaw the panel, George Beckstead of the United States. But the federation said the results will not be changed. Hamm believes the problem started when FIG decided to review the videotapes of the event after the South Koreans complained. Reviewing tapes to handle protests is not allowed in international gymnastics.

…USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi said he wasn’t taking a stand on whether Hamm should share the gold medal with Yang. He did, however, reiterate that he didn’t think the result should be changed. “In a sport where things are decided by thousandths of points, there are zillions of places for little mistakes,” Colarossi said. “I’m proud of Paul. I stand behind Paul.” Hamm and his coach, Miles Avery, said they looked at Yang’s routine and saw a place where he should have received a 0.2-point deduction that the judges didn’t take.

As NBC’s gymnastics commentator Tim Daggett–who reviewed the tape of Tae-Young’s parallel bar routine–showed, Tae-Young made four holds on his parallel routine as opposed to the maximum allowed: three. For this mistake, Yang Tae-Young should have received a mandatory 0.2 deduction. So even with the adjustment for the 0.1 added to his starting score, Paul Hamm would still remain the Olympic Gold medalist. Yang Tae-Young does not deserve the gold medal, Paul Hamm does.

— Mark Da Cunha is a photographer who admires heroes and seeks to learn from them.

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