King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Gymnastics gets interesting in a loud, hooting hurry. Plus: A white American sprint champion? Shh! And: More.

By Salon Staff

Published August 24, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

I love it, love it, love it! I love the crazy gymnastics judges! I love their little squinting faces and how they scurry around and have conferences and talk into telephones after they post their scores. They have to yell into those phones because 12,000 people are booing them. And they have to try to look like they don't hear the booing people.

They aren't any good at this last thing. I don't know who would be. On Monday night, the people booed for eight solid minutes. Eight minutes! You have to really go some to piss off a gymnastics crowd enough so that they boo for eight minutes. I've never heard a college football crowd boo for that long, never mind a polite gymnastics crowd.

And they only quit booing because the guy on behalf of whom they were angry asked them to please stop. And then a minute later, they were booing again.

I loved it!

You know who the crazy gymnastics judges were talking to on those phones, don't you? The French lady with the alligator purse! Remember? From Salt Lake City? Skategate? David and Jamie? Any of this ringing a bell for you? You really, really cared about it two years ago.

The men's gymnastics, which were winding down nicely Tuesday, almost gone, suddenly got way interesting in the high bar competition, and poor Paul Hamm, the American all-around gold medalist, was in the middle of it again. Hamm had spent the last few days dealing with the snot-storm that resulted from the crazy judging in the all-around, and just before he was ready to do his thing in the high bar, the snot started flying again.

Hamm won the all-around Wednesday after the judges made an error assessing the start value of South Korean Yang Tae-young's parallel bars routine. The Koreans protested unsuccessfully and there'd been a lot of talk that Hamm should give up his gold or at least share it with Yang. Hamm said he had no such plans, and rightly so. Scores are scores, the Koreans had their chance to protest within the rules at the time of the error, and them's the breaks. You don't go into gymnastics if you're interested in fairness and verifiable outcomes.

But the whole thing clearly bothered Hamm.

So on Monday the competitor before Hamm, Alexei Nemov of Russia, a four-time gold-medalist and general big daddy in the sport, turned in a spectacular routine that wowed the crowd, made up of amateur judges. He did six release moves, four of them right in a row. It was a thing to behold. But he took a step on his landing.

As we all know, a step on the landing brings a 0.1-point penalty, but otherwise the routine was out of this world, at least to the untrained eye, but also to the trained one. When Nemov's score was flashed -- 9.725, lower than the two men who had preceded him with mortal routines -- NBC analyst Tim Daggett was flabbergasted, which is odd because throughout these Olympics, the scores had often seemed to come out of a random numbers generator.

Daggett spends a lot of his energy lobbying for the scores of Americans, but on behalf of the Russian, he said, "Sometimes the judges, they just make errors. The exercise was so phenomenal. Yes, he took a step on the landing, but come on! Look at something else besides just the landing."

The judges had looked at something other than the landing for the first competitor, Isao Yoneda of Japan, who had stepped on his landing and gotten a 9.787.

There are surely subtleties that you and I and the crowd in the arena sometimes miss in an exercise, and we can be wowed by flashy routines that aren't technically as sound as they should be. But even if that's what was going on here, there was just no way the other two were that much better than Nemov.

On Nemov's dismount, Daggett had called the routine "unreal." It should be noted that he's free with the superlatives, but he hadn't dished them out for the first two gymnasts, Yoneda and Morgan "Twin of Paul" Hamm.

So the crowd started booing and whistling at the score. And kept booing and whistling. And kept on. Paul Hamm got ready for his exercise, but the noise wouldn't stop. After about two minutes, Adrian Stoica, chief of the men's technical committee for FIG, the gymnastics body, began stirring. He called a meeting at the judges' table, gathering together the Malaysian and Canadian judges, who had given Nemov particularly low scores.

The fans were giving the thumbs down signal. The judges looked like Enron executives on a perp walk. Stoica looked like he'd eaten a cockroach.

After six minutes of all this, the boos turned to cheers as Nemov stood up and waved to the crowd, thanking them, just as his revised score was posted: 9.762, which changed nothing, keeping him third after three competitors. As soon as Nemov sat back down, the booing started again.

What a ridiculous sport: We have judges to assess the athletes' performance, but if enough people don't like their assessment, we just change it.

I love it! Without this nonsense, it's just a bunch of buff little dudes flipping around a gym. Nothing wrong with that, but hardly worth hunting down the remote for.

So Paul Hamm, who'd been cooling his jets for six minutes, covering his hands in chalk, then sitting down, then pacing, chalking up again, etc., got ready to go again. Ooh, he was mad. After two more minutes of booing he asked Nemov if he'd ask the crowd to quiet down, which the Russian did. The crowd cheered for Nemov, then kept booing and whistling.

Hamm just went ahead, and the people finally shut up once he got up there, the boos turning to cheers as he went through his exercise and finished. He stepped on his landing, but it was a terrific routine. Paul Hamm is some serious clutch.

Score: 9.812. First place. The booing started again, but just for a few seconds.

With the tension and anger thick as a chalk cloud in the room, Igor Cassina of Italy got up and did an even more spectacular routine than Nemov had done. The crowd went bananas as soon as he hit the mat, sticking his landing. His score: 9.812, same as Paul Hamm, who hadn't been nearly as good. Like Daggett said, sometimes the judges, they just make errors. They must have made a mistake here: They got something right.

Yang of South Korea, who wuz robbed in the all-around, went last, but in an anticlimax, he nearly fell on a release and was out of it. A tie-breaking procedure gave Cassina the gold, Paul Hamm the silver. Little of it made any sense, and it was the most fun I've ever had watching gymnastics.

"I'm speechless over the judging," Daggett said. "Hopefully some changes can be made. They've got to be."

Yes, I'm sure they'll clean things up just like figure skating did.

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The white elephant in the room [PERMALINK]

How many gold medals is new 400-meter champion Jeremy Wariner of the United States going to have to win over the next few Olympics before anyone on television mentions that he's a white American sprinter? The last time a white American sprinter won a gold medal was 40 years ago.

What's that mean? What's the significance of a white sprinter? I don't know, maybe nothing. Maybe it's just a meaningless factoid.

But we're bombarded constantly with meaningless factoids about these athletes. We learn about why this one got into the sport, what that one's mother does for a living, how this other one met Janet Evans once on a Girl Scouts field trip. We hear that this nation or that one, usually the U.S., hasn't won a medal in this sport since 1972, or has won five in a row or whatever.

And here something unique is achieved by an American athlete in a marquee sport, and NBC maintains radio silence on the issue.

It's not that Wariner's whiteness is such a big deal, but come on, it's interesting. I know we don't like to talk about race in this country, but it's OK. There's no harm. He's a white guy. NBC turns it into a weird, uncomfortable issue by not talking about it.

Wariner spent most of the evening hugging and kissing his teammates Otis Harris and Derrick Brew, who won silver and bronze in an American sweep. As the three of them stood there, arms around each other's shoulders, being interviewed, wouldn't it have been a fairly safe move to ask Wariner about being the first white American sprinter in 40 years to win a gold medal? He'd no doubt have said something about how skin color doesn't matter and yadda yadda very nice. Did NBC think he'd start shouting white power slogans or something?

Let's grow up, people.

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Hench-items [PERMALINK]

  • I love when marathon runners and race walkers hit their stopwatch as they cross the finish line, as Athanasia Tsoumeleka of Greece did when she won the women's 20-kilometer walk Monday.

    Hey, folks, this is the Olympics. They have millions of dollars worth of the world's most sophisticated timing equipment trained on you. Relax with the watch. Someone will tell you what your time was. You can look up at the scoreboard.

  • What a priceless look on the face of American sprinter Muna Lee as she was interviewed by NBC's Bob Neumeier following her victory in a 200-meter heat Monday. Neumeier took the handoff from Tom Hammond and, standing next to Lee, launched into his first question:

    "Well, Tom, I rather doubt that the late poet and feminist Muna Lee ever ran a 22.36 in the 200 as you did, Muna Lee, in the trials. Is that what it's going to take to get you competitive here in the Olympic Games?" As Neumeier was showing off that he'd done some homework back at the hotel, Lee fixed him with a look that said, in no uncertain terms, "What the hell are you talking about, and why are you such a dork?"

    I'm able to translate because 22-year-old women have been known to fix me with such a look.

    Neumeier, who's actually a horse-racing guy, ended the unrevealing interview that followed by asking Lee if she were named after that poet. "No," she said, and she was already leaving when the camera cut away.

  • I've said this before, but I've definitely reached that age where I just don't understand what the creative young folks who make TV commercials are trying to say.

    Have you seen that series of ads for McDonald's where someone is alone, eating junk food from McDonald's and fending off imaginary people he or she seems to believe is trying to steal it? What are these commercials trying to say? That delusional paranoids enjoy McDonald's? That's nice, but it doesn't exactly make me want to head on over to the Golden Arches.

    Previous column: Hoops, drugs, high-def

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    This column has been corrected since it was originally published.

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