Sports Law Blog
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Wednesday, August 25, 2004
 

Upon Further Review: There is no shortage of coverage on the controversy surrounding American gymnast Paul Hamm and his gold-medal winning performance in the men's all-around competition. To recap briefly, Hamm won the gold with a spectacular final routine on the high bar. His score moved him in front of South Korea's Kim-Dae-eun by .012 of a point, the closest margin in history. Subsequently, however, it was determined that another South Korean gymnast, Yang Tae Young, was given an improper start value on the parallel bars. The difference of .1 on the level of difficulty would have moved Young from his bronze-medal finish to winning the gold medal over Hamm. The judges missed this, and thus, gave Hamm the gold in error.

So the argument goes. But what is often not mentioned is that the judges also missed a major deduction during Young's parallel bars routine. As an NBC gymnastics analyst noted, Hamm performed four holds during his routine, one more than the allowed three. This should have resulted in a deduction of .2 of a point, which would have lowered Young's score, even with the increased start value.

The point is this. Judges, umpires, officials, timekeepers -- they all make mistakes. Routines are mis-scored, phantom fouls are called, pitches that are balls are called strikes. These mistakes are part of sports. Yes, one wishes that every call would be made correctly and every routine scored perfectly, but this does not happen, especially in a sport like gymnastics where the judges must view a lightning-fast routine and issue a subjective score. The officials responsible were removed from further judging, and this is appropriate. But nothing is gained by adding replay or rescoring after the competition has ended and the medals have been awarded. Can you imagine officials reviewing the tape of a basketball game two days after it ended to see if a player traveled before hitting the game winning shot? Or if the league office ruled the day after the Super Bowl that a player juggled a ball, negating a key touchdown at the end of the 1st half?

Counterfactuals have not become an accepted methodology for studying history because of the intricacies involved in historical events. One does not know how a competitor would respond if he was further behind, or further ahead, in the standings than he was in reality. If Hamm had needed a perfect routine to win gold, he may have attempted a more difficult element and fallen off the bar. Young, faced with the pressure of leading the competition, might have choked on his final apparatus, falling out of contention for any medal. The fact is that we will never know and that history cannot be re-written.

But this is how it should be. There should not be do-overs; there should not be re-evaluations days after the competition. Mistakes happen, but those mistakes should remain within the field of competition, where athletes can respond immediately and prove themselves a champion. It won't always be fair (i.e. 1972 US-USSR basketball, the vault set too low in Sydney) and it will never be perfect. But then again, neither is life.

Congratulations to Paul Hamm. He won the gold medal, and he won it fair and square.





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