Artemev says Hamm, U.S. gymnasts have shot at gold

Updated: February 8, 2008, 7:51 PM ET
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS -- The Games begin in six months. Or maybe they've begun already.

Hard to know how quickly his words will filter across international waters, but American gymnast Sasha Artemev made a splash Friday when he proclaimed the U.S. men to be serious gold medal contenders and teammate Paul Hamm, not two-time world champ Yang Wei, as the man to beat at the Beijing Olympics.

"He doesn't have a weakness," Artemev said of Hamm, the defending Olympic champion. "He's strong on all six events. Yang Wei has a high bar weakness. He's not too good on high bar. But Paul doesn't have a weakness. He's strong on all events. He's the man to beat, in my opinion."

Hamm is certainly the man to beat Saturday at the finals of the Winter Cup Challenge, one of the first steps on the road to Beijing. Preliminaries on Thursday marked Hamm's first full competition since Athens and he was stellar, racking up a 3.8-point lead over Raj Bhavsar.

And while saying the defending Olympic champion is the man to beat may not be going out on a limb, Artemev certainly did step out there with his comments about the team competition. Sure, the Americans are improving: They finished fourth at world championships last year after finishing 13th the year before.

They positioned themselves as sure medal contenders. But nobody had been putting them in the same class as China, the host country and presumed favorite -- with a roster that could include former world champions in Yang (all-around, parallel bars), Xiao Qin (pommel horse) and Chen Yibing (rings).

Until now.

"I think with this Olympic Games and with Paul being back and everyone being healthy, we have a strong chance at winning the Olympic Games," Artemev said. "And that's what all the guys on this team are shooting for. We're not shooting for third. We're shooting to win. That's the mind-set you want to be in."

For the record, this is not just some scrub making these assertions. Artemev has long been viewed as America's most talented gymnast this side of Hamm and his brother, Morgan. He has one national championship (2006) to prove it and a reputation that earns him respect from international judges.

He's also not alone in believing the Americans could be winners this year.

Defending national champion David Durante seconded the notion that two gold medals were possible -- one for Hamm and one for the team.

"China is, by far, the best team right now and they're going to be very difficult to catch," Durante said. "But it's not impossible. I'm a huge New York Giants fan. I saw what happened last week. If that can happen, anything can happen. I believe deeply in this team and what we're capable of doing."

He said he was more than impressed with Hamm's meet Thursday, in which he nailed five of six routines and didn't look anything like someone who had taken off for 2 years. His only major error came on his pommel horse dismount.

"It's unbelievable to watch him," Durante said. "It bumps up our international credibility and just our team strength in general. He's just an amazing competitor and an amazing gymnast. Some guys are born with the work ethic, the talent and the discipline and Paul has it. He's a once-in-a-generation athlete and we're happy to have him back."

Hamm, who studies the competition as much as anyone, also is confident, though not quite as unabashed in his predictions for Beijing. He says the Americans should be in the medal hunt with teams such as Japan and Germany "but China will be difficult to beat."

"You'll have to have an amazing competition and they'll have to have some mistakes," he said.

He views his personal prospects the same way, figuring Yang of China will be his toughest competition. Analyzing Yang's routines over the past year, Hamm figures he's about 1.5 to 2 points short of Yang in start values, meaning he'll have to make it up in execution.

"It's not, by any means, out of the question that I can beat him. I know I can," Hamm said. "If he has any kind of mistakes, I can beat him. But if he's on top of his game, he's got a pretty big lead on starting scores and his difficulty."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press