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

2/8/2008

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 2½ 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."