Spectators angry about judging halt gymnastics final

An abundance of objections is testing Games' machinery for settling protests

Athens Olympics

August 24, 2004|By Candus Thomson and Randy Harvey | Candus Thomson and Randy Harvey,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - The boos rang off the rafters. The foot stomping could be felt in the grandstand railing. The derisive whistles pierced the Olympic decorum.

After a week of finger pointing, protests and tantrums, the fed-up crowd at last night's gymnastics final took matters into its own hands and halted competition in an 8 1/2 -minute demonstration of anger.

All-around champion Paul Hamm fidgeted silently, waiting for the crowd to quiet so he could perform on the high bar. Finally, Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov - the wronged man in the eyes of the crowd - stepped forward to restore order.

"The crowd roar, I've never heard it that loud in my life," said Hamm. "It almost seemed like it was a movie or something."

It was just about a week ago that a U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman said he hoped these Games wouldn't turn into the Protest Olympics. But that appears to be exactly what is happening. Complaints have cut across sports and nationalities, but most of them have originated in gymnastics.

"There are bad feelings all around," Bart Conner, a 1984 gymnastics gold medalist, told the Los Angeles Times.

"What's the statute of limitations for grievances in sport now?" said another American gymnast from 1984, Peter Vidmar. "There have to be rules."

The sheer volume of protests might force action, but not in time for any relief at these Games.

"I think what you might see is the [International Gymnastics Federation] review some of the rules for how you file for on-the-field review and tighten it up a little bit," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "But the rules are the rules, and nothing changes before the Olympics."

Perhaps the most famous case to date involves Hamm and South Korean gymnast Yang Tae Young, who was victimized by a low score for level of difficulty on his parallel bars routine. The Koreans want Yang to get a duplicate gold medal and have vowed to take their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

But nothing compares to last night's court of public opinion.

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Nemov was given a score of 9.725 points for his high bar routine, which started the noisy demonstration.

Lost in the din was the fact that as the score flashed on the boards overhead, the judge from Malaysia raised his hand to indicate he had made a mistake. That judge and one from Canada revised their scores upward to give Nemov a 9.762, moving him to fifth out of 10 finalists.

"The whole crowd was rooting for Nemov, who's a great competitor," said Morgan Hamm, Paul's twin brother, who performed before the Russian. "I have a lot of respect for the guy, but there were a couple of errors in his routine, even though he did some amazing release moves and high-flying gymnastics, which the crowd really likes."

Paul Hamm waited as the judges sorted through the revisions, something he likened to a basketball coach taking a timeout to ice a free-throw shooter. He kept his composure and scored a 9.812, which only renewed the booing.

Italy's Igor Cassina matched that score and won the gold medal in a tiebreaker. Japan's Isao Yoneda got the bronze.

"It just proves that our sport is a subjective sport and people are going to have different opinions, and that's why we have the judges making the final decision. They're the ones who are trained and who know the rules better than anyone else," said Paul Hamm.

"Subjective" likely would be the least of the words Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina would choose. She finished behind American Carly Patterson in last week's all-around and said the decision was made before the competition started.

"I knew well in advance, even before I stepped on the stage for my first event, that I was going to lose," Khorkina was quoted saying in the Russian newspaper Izvestia. "I practically did everything right; still they just set me up and fleeced me. ... I think it's because I'm from Russia, not from America."

At least three other sports - swimming, equestrian and sailing - have had challenges.

Last night, at least two were filed - one by the Canadians and another by U.S. gymnast Annia Hatch - over the difficulty values given by judges to gymnastics routines.

Earlier, U.S. swimmer Aaron Peirsol was disqualified for an illegal turn after winning the 200-meter backstroke, but the lane judge's ruling was overturned even before it reached the international appeal level. The gold medal was reinstated.

British swimming officials were so incensed they threatened to take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But British Olympic Committee officials thwarted the efforts of its own swimming federation because they were already involved in a case before CAS involving an equestrian protest.

Even the Greek hosts lodged a protest early on.

At the Olympics, unlike television game shows, the judges' decisions are not always final.

Believing it needed an independent court of appeals, the International Olympic Committee authorized the Switzerland-based CAS to settle such disputes during the Games.

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