King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Olympics: Paul Hamm makes history and gets Roy Jones Jr.'s revenge. Plus: LeBron James' learning curve. And: Beach volleyballers and shot-putters.

By Salon Staff
Published August 19, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

That was a great finish in the men's gymnastics all-around final Wednesday, a clutch performance by Paul Hamm of the U.S. to come from way behind, recovering from a crash on the vault to nail routines on the parallel bars and high bar to win the gold. He's the first American man to win all-around gold, and that moment when his coaches told him he'd won and he said, "What? No!" is an instant classic.

But a few seconds later, the cameras focused on Kim Dae Eun of South Korea, who had been in the lead. He buried his face in a towel, and I thought of Roy Jones Jr. in 1988, who did the same thing when he got robbed in the gold-medal boxing match.

In one of the most memorable instances of crooked judging in Olympic history, Jones beat a Korean opponent pillar to post in Seoul only to lose the decision. Jones climbing out of the ring with a towel pressed to his face is the most memorable image in Olympic boxing since George Foreman waved those little American flags in 1968. Korean judges later admitted taking bribes, and the incident led to amateur boxing adopting a scoring system that's good at preventing judicial impropriety and lousy at scoring fights.

This is being largely ignored by an American media lavishing well-deserved praise on Hamm for his gritty, inspired and inspiring comeback, but his opponents thought the judging smelled a little funny.

"It is quite possible the judges scored, consciously or not, in favor of Hamm," said Korea Gymnastic Association official Kim Sung-ho in the Korea Times. "They might have scored him in a sympathetic way after a star like Hamm tumbled in the vault event, and it cannot be overlooked that the United States is powerful" in the International Gymnastic Federation.

"I'm rather disappointed and angry, in a way," said Kim, who settled for the silver. Ioan Suciu of Romania, who finished fourth, also said Hamm got some help from the judges. "I think the USA got something more than it deserved."

Some of this might be sour grapes. Maybe all of it is. I don't know enough about gymnastics scoring to say how strange the scoring was. But if the nationalities were reversed, the story in this country wouldn't be the gold medalist's spectacular late routines or even the silver medalist's leaving the door open for him, but the wacky judging.

When Hamm crashed on his vault, stumbling and falling off the platform and almost into the lap of a judge, he got a 9.137, which seemed a little friendly, not just to my untrained eyes but to his opponents. It was a difficult vault, and therefore had a high starting number, and a fall only means a half-point deduction no matter how bad it looks. I get all that.

But why was it that everyone there, the contestants, the TV announcers, the coaches, Hamm's family, even Hamm himself, said at the time or later that they were sure Hamm had no chance to win after he fell? It's not like everyone ahead of him at the time also fell. They weren't strong, they left the door open, but they weren't disastrous either. Kim's last two scores were 9.725 and 9.650. Nobody said, "Boy, I thought it would be tough." They all said: "No chance."

"I thought he was done. I thought he had no odds," said coach Miles Avery. "I thought there was no chance to come back to win," Hamm said.

Haven't they seen a gymnastics meet before? Didn't they know Hamm could still come back if he performed well and the 11 gymnasts ahead of him were less than perfect? Or were they just not accounting for the fact that the judging here was going to be a little different than what they were used to?

I don't know. I'm asking. And I realize that just by asking I'm disparaging Hamm's achievement, which I don't want to do, and I'm not just going Mark Antony by saying that.

Hamm can only control his own actions, and all he did was perform brilliantly when he had no margin for error and every excuse to mail it in. He was magnificent, and he would have been magnificent even if his efforts had only resulted in a bronze medal, or even fourth place.

But I can't help it. When Hamm, the world champion, a favorite, an American, the guy who'd fallen, the guy whose miracle comeback could put the sport on the all-important international -- and especially American -- media A-list for a while, needed 9.825 on his high-bar routine, and nailed it, and got a 9.837: Well, that just seemed pretty convenient to me.

I want to believe it was all on the up and up, that -- consciously or not -- the judges didn't give Hamm more than he deserved. And I'm willing to be convinced. But given the history of Olympic judging in subjective sports, I'm afraid I need to be convinced. Olympic judges have taught me to be suspicious.

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LeBron's learning curve [PERMALINK]

The United States men's basketball team had its best game of the Olympics so far Wednesday, beating Australia 89-79. The much-disparaged team seems to be coming around a little bit, though it still was plenty beatable against the Aussies, not taking control of the game until the fourth quarter, when it stepped up its defense.

If you listen closely, though, I think you can actually hear the gears turning in LeBron James' head as he figures things out. James, at 19 the second youngest American Olympic basketball player ever after Spencer Haywood in 1968, is the best athlete on the floor whenever he steps on to it. But after looking lost and struggling early, he's soaked up enough information about the international game that all of a sudden he's able to control the game at times.

You can practically see him learning from quarter to quarter. Coach Larry Brown is seeing it, giving James more and more playing time, including the entire fourth period against Australia. When the best athlete on the floor is also smart, look out. But you knew that.

I can't say enough about LeBron James. What a player. I hope the people who keep complaining about how the U.S. doesn't know how to play basketball the right way can stop whining long enough to appreciate what he's doing.

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Hench-items [PERMALINK]

  • Michael Phelps' mom, Debbie, answered a softball "Can you put into words how proud you are" question from Melissa Stark this way: "I could say I'm speechless, but it's just, I feel that just watching his face, it's every word in the dictionary."

    I think she had that answer scripted in advance. Good script, though. Phelps has three golds and two bronzes, by the way.

  • I've invented a drinking game for the Olympics. Drink once every time a TV announcer uses the word "dream" or "unbelievable." That's it. You'll need a lot of liquor and 30 minutes. Forty if you have a hollow leg. But now that the gymnastics are almost over, you should be able to steer clear of serious liver damage.

  • Several readers, including 1996 Olympic kayaker Peter Giles of Canada, wrote to say I'd erred when I referred to whitewater participants as "rowers." The correct term is "paddlers," and I apologize to any rowers or paddlers who were offended by my confusing them, which was dumb of me.

  • I now know why bikini models never pose with their hands on their knees. When the female beach volleyball players stand that way, which they do before every point as they await the serve, their bellies hang down, victims of gravity just like yours and mine.

    The difference is when they stand back up, of course, but the point here is that I've learned something about the world around me, which is always worthwhile, especially when it concerns bikini models.

  • Speaking of bellies, how cool is it that the fashion among female shot-putters is to wear midriff-bearing shirts? Those are powerful bellies on display there.

  • And speaking of beach volleyball: I love how the two-person teams have numbers on the backs of their uniforms. Those numbers would be "1" and "2."

    Programs, get your programs! Can't tell the players without a program!

  • Oh yeah, back to shot-putting -- at this point I'm just trying to see how many times I can go back and forth between beach volleyball and shot-putting and still have it make sense -- I love watching the judges in field throwing events.

    All these other Olympic sports have sophisticated computerized machinery to measure differences of a thousandths of a second or a billionth of a millimeter or whatever, but in the shot put, you heave that thing, it lands, and a guy in a Panama hat wanders over and kind of points with his toe. "Oh, around there."

    I'm sure it's all very precise, but that's what it looks like.

  • Which reminds me, in beach volleyball ... Just kidding. You are now seeing what watching 70 hours of television a day will do to a person. As I write this, it's 64 o'clock.

    Previous column: Women's gymnastics

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