Just let it drop

Updated: August 27, 2004, 10:14 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- You know your sport's federation has some problems when it makes figure skating look fair and impartial.

The International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG), unable to recognize when it should stop flogging a dead horse, had a number of possible actions it could have taken Friday regarding the Paul Hamm controversy. It could have done nothing at all, which at this stage, was probably the best option. It could have said that a scoring mistake was made, that these things happen and that it was changing the results and declaring South Korean gymnast Yang Tae-young the champion. It could have said it would like to rectify the scoring mistake by asking the IOC to issue a second gold medal (as South Korea requested on behalf of its gymnast).

Instead, it chose the pusillanimous route by writing a letter to Hamm asking him in the "ultimate demonstration of fairplay" to surrender his gold medal. Nice, huh? They made the mistake and then asked the athlete to clean up their mess.

Actually, it didn't even have the guts to do that. Federation president Bruno Grandi wrote the letter to Hamm, then asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to be his errand boy by delivering it. The USOC refused, then held a news conference to call out FIG.

"The USOC views this letter as a blatant and inappropriate attempt on the part of FIG to once again shift responsibility for its own mistakes and instead pressure Mr. Hamm into resolving what has become an embarrassing situation for the Federation," the USOC announced in a press release. "The USOC finds this request to be improper, outrageous and so far beyond the bounds of what is acceptable that it refuses to transmit the letter to Mr. Hamm."

"It's an attempt to remove responsibility and shift the focus and blame from their organization onto an innocent athlete," USOC Secretary General Jim Scherr said.

Of course, the USOC is hardly clean in all this. It left Hamm out to dry for more than a week before finally coming to his defense far too late.

"We were at fault for not stating more strongly and directly our support for Paul and his welfare," Scherr said. "I wish we had done so more strongly and much earlier."

I'm sure that makes Hamm feel all warm and tingly.

You've got to feel for Hamm. He labors in obscurity for much of his life, sculpting his body into a tribute to human physique and strength, then seemingly accomplishes something that had never been done by an American male gymnast. He won the gold medal in the all-around.

Then he woke up the next morning and found himself in a nightmare. Much of the world viewed him as a villain because he didn't want to give up that hard-earned gold because of someone else's mistake. So what should have been the crowning glory of his life has instead left him looking like a bad guy in the eyes of many.

And the thing is, he didn't do anything wrong. All he did was compete as best he could, and in his eyes, win. It was the judges who screwed up.

Sure, Hamm could have quieted this storm by volunteering to give up the medal -- it's almost always best to look magnanimous rather than selfish -- but that's easy to say for people who never sweated a single drop for that medal. The more the various federations squabble and point fingers, the more I sympathize with him and say he should stick to his guns.

The IOC refuses to grant him a second gold medal, as it did during the Salt Lake figure skating scandal, saying that the difference here is last week's scoring mistake was a result of human error rather than malfeasance.

That doesn't wash, though. If an athlete was unfairly scored by a judge, whether it was intentional or not, the solution is to rectify the mistake. That means giving out a second gold.

The USOC said that the matter is closed now and will stay closed. It's right about that for one very good reason. The Olympics end in two days and then we'll go back to ignoring all gymnasts, Hamm included.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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