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Politics & Law

Olympic Gold All Around Gymnast Paul Hamm: Only Human

By Mark Da Cunha

After three out of six rotations in the Men’s All-around Olympic Gymnastics, American gymnast Paul Hamm was ranked first place in the standings. His next event was the vault. Hamm’s vault was to be a Tsukahara–named after Japanese gymnast Mitsuo Tsukahara. It was ranked a 9.9 out of 10 for difficulty, in part because of its’ two and a half twists leading into a blind landing. No easy feat. But Hamm had never missed a vault landing in competition. Ever.

The expectation that Paul Hamm–the reigning world champion in Men’s gymnastics–was going to win the gold medal in the Men’s All-around Olympic Gymnastics was more than halfway to becoming a reality.

That expectation was shattered as Hamm crashed into the Judge’s table while stumbling during the landing on the vault. Hamm dropped from 1st to 12th place as he finished 22nd on the vault (out of 23 competitors) with a score of 9.137.

With only two events left to go, a depressed American crowd in the Olympic Hall looked on in silence. Surely Hamm’s dream of being the first American to win the Olympic all-around gold medal was over.

Or was it?

As least I thought so as I watched Hamm–the reigning world champion gymnast–ever the perfectionist, stumble as he tried to stick a landing that could have perhaps been partly saved with a small adjustment step. But Hamm is a perfectionist. He is the kind of man who pushes himself not merely to victory, but to greatness. A great gymnast does not take small adjustment steps, but sticks their landings. So rather than take a small step to prevent his fall, Hamm consciously held his feet in place in order to make a perfect landing. Unfortunately, in this one instance, the price of failing to take that small adjustment step was an even larger fall, as Hamm’s body did not obey his mental directions. Or in the gymnast’s own words, “In the air I felt fine, and then when I landed I felt weak in my legs and just lost control…”

I walked away from my television unable to watch. I do not mind seeing great athletes lose because their competitors achieved something greater. But, I hate to see an athlete lose because of the kind of mistake that an athlete of Hamm’s caliber performed. It’s like watching Pete Sampras crash out in the second round of Wimbledon to a low-ranked journeyman. That kind of stuff is not supposed to happen.

Ever since he was a young child, Hamm had “day-dreamed about winning the Olympics thousands of times.” How would you feel in such a situation? Hamm felt a huge wave of depression as he struggled to fight back tears. “I was really depressed because I thought I ruined everything with the vault” said Hamm of his psychological state after the fall.

Many a mortal at this point would have folded. But not Hamm. Rather then blaming the Athenian Gods, or complaining about the malevolence of the universe, or crying foul at being a puppet to The Fates, Hamm chose an alternate course of action: he chose to think. Hamm realized that he was the master of his destiny. The results of that philosophy brought on a new set of possibilities: he could salvage his Olympics by performing greatly in the next two rotations; he could achieve a strong finish; he could win a third-place medal. Or, in Hamm’s words, “At that point in time I decided I was going to go after the bronze medal.” (NBC)

In the face of embarrassment and failure, with the flick of a mental switch, the young American gymnast’s dreams were reborn from the ashes.

The next event for Hamm, was the parallel bars. His goal was to give it the best performance of his life. He did. With little left to lose, Hamm achieved his best score of the night on the parallel bars–a 9.837. This score moved Hamm into fourth place. Commented Hamm later, “I realized that I had brought it back from a point where I felt I had no chance…I brought it back to a point where I was thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going up on high bar, I have a chance to win an Olympic medal here, I’m going after it.’ That’s the mindset I went into that event with.” (NBC)

It was in the last event of the rotation–the high bar–that Hamm left the crowd, and I, nearly speechless. Where the previous gymnast spun around the bar with both hands, Hamm circled it even faster as he held on with one. The American flew through the air, effortlessly spinning around the bar while precariously attached to it by five small fingers. He was like a large planet orbiting a long cylindrical moon held to it by a string. Hamm followed the one-arm maneuver with an even more difficult one of three blind release moves as he let go of the bar only to come back and catch it as he spun around it. This time there was no string to hold the orbiting planet in place–only the laws of physics and Paul Hamm’s ability to use his mind and body to demonstrate them. All that was left was his dismount–and landing. And then–unlike the vault–Hamm stuck his landing with both arms raised proudly in the air. The crowd roared in approval.

Hamm needed a score of 9.825 to achieve gold–he scored a 9.837 in the high bar for a total score of total score of 57.823– a mere 12-thousandths of a point ahead of his closest competitor (South Korea’s Kim Dae Eun whose total score was 57.811) in the closest finish ever in Olympic Men’s Gymnastics history. Paul Hamm had pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in Olympic history.

Said Hamm of his victory,

“I think I probably day-dreamed about winning the Olympics thousands of times…I did not every picture myself having a mistake and then winning. I would have loved to have finished the competition flawlessly, but at the same time it shows how strong my character was. I wasn’t going to let it go. I really had to fight for what I wanted.” (NBC)

In a world where to be “only” human is to be a “Hero” defeated by a “tragic flaw”, or a “sovereign” dictator that murders innocents, or a moocher seeking welfare off the backs of others, Paul Hamm’s quest for gold is an example of what makes a human being human: the ability to apply ones’ mind in concentrated physical effort over an extended period of time to achieve a long-range goal in the face of obstacles. Thank you Mr. Hamm for proudly demonstrating the actuality of the human potential in all of us. Be proud of your achievements–you earned them.

Update (August 21, 2004):
According to the BBC:

Three gymnastics judges were suspended on Saturday for a key scoring error which resulted in American Paul Hamm winning the men’s all-round gold. The mistake on Wednesday cost South Korean bronze medallist Yang Tae-young a tenth of a point needed to win. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) upheld the South Korea’s protest but said Hamm would keep his medal. After reviewing the results, FIG officials confirmed he should have been awarded a start value of 10. He scored a 9.712 on the event, but with the extra .1, he would have finished with 57.874 points and defeated Hamm by .051….Yang finished third, another .037 behind Kim. [BBC]

However, MSNBC reports:

The Los Angeles Times reported that U.S. Olympic officials said they would consider supporting South Korean officials in a bid to award duplicate gold medals to Hamm and Yang. The International Gymnastics Federation suspended the two judges who determined the start values — Benjamin Bango of Spain and Oscar Buitrago Reyes of Colombia — along with the judge who oversaw the panel, George Beckstead of the United States. But the federation said the results will not be changed. Hamm believes the problem started when FIG decided to review the videotapes of the event after the South Koreans complained. Reviewing tapes to handle protests is not allowed in international gymnastics.

…USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi said he wasn’t taking a stand on whether Hamm should share the gold medal with Yang. He did, however, reiterate that he didn’t think the result should be changed. “In a sport where things are decided by thousandths of points, there are zillions of places for little mistakes,” Colarossi said. “I’m proud of Paul. I stand behind Paul.” Hamm and his coach, Miles Avery, said they looked at Yang’s routine and saw a place where he should have received a 0.2-point deduction that the judges didn’t take.

As NBC’s gymnastics commentator Tim Daggett–who reviewed the tape of Tae-Young’s parallel bar routine–showed, Tae-Young made four holds on his parallel routine as opposed to the maximum allowed: three. For this mistake, Yang Tae-Young should have received a mandatory 0.2 deduction. So even with the adjustment for the 0.1 added to his starting score, Paul Hamm would still remain the Olympic Gold medalist. Yang Tae-Young does not deserve the gold medal, Paul Hamm does.

— Mark Da Cunha is a photographer who admires heroes and seeks to learn from them.

How to Achieve Real Campaign Finance Reform

By Edwin A. Locke

The U. S. House of Representative is again debating campaign finance reform legislation. The proximate cause of this debate being brought to the floor now is the Enron scandal, including the fact that the company gave large amounts of money to politicians from both major parties. The deeper cause is the increasing disgust the American people have come to feel about the unprincipled manner in which our legislative process is conducted. The process, in essence, is that swarms of lobbyists descend like locusts on Washington, demanding special favors in return for campaign contributions. It is claimed that the ultimate culprit in this mess is money (“wealthy special-interest groups”). This claim is false. “Moneyed interests” are only a symptom of a deeper cause. The corruption is caused not by material wealth but by spiritual poverty. It is caused by a bankrupt philosophical premise: the concept of the “public interest.”

Let us see how this premise operates in practice. Imagine that you are an honest, idealistic congressman just elected to office. On your first day, you are accosted by four lobbyists. The first demands a tariff increase on certain imports to “protect” his group’s industry–which, he claims, serves the public. The second lobbyist asserts that it will benefit the public if his group gets a subsidy to help its members survive in a “brutally competitive” market. The third insists that it will help the public if members of his group are given license to be the exclusive providers of a certain service. The fourth says the public will be better off if unions are made illegal in his industry. The next day, a new group of lobbyists asks you for favors. These requests often conflict with those demanded by the first group, but are just as fervently presented as being in the “public interest.”

How then do you decide what to do? If an auto-industry spokesman argues for import tariffs on cars to protect the jobs of hundreds of thousands of workers, and an auto-dealer association argues for no tariffs in order to give hundreds of thousands of buyers lower prices, which group, in this case, is the “public”? Both and neither. You realize that “the public” is not an actual entity but only a collection of individuals. So which individuals, in any given case, should get what they want and at whose expense? There is no way to tell–anyone can claim to be the public on any issue. In dismay you recognize that “the public interest” has no objective meaning. It is empty rhetoric.

Politics abhors a vacuum, and when there are no coherent moral principles to guide action, the void is filled by pressure-group warfare. The winner of any given battle is decided by such arbitrary factors as which group is bigger, richer, better connected (e.g., to the White House), or more attuned to the latest media hype or political tide. In practice, the principle of the “public interest” leads to a political war of all against all in which some individuals are sacrificed for the benefit of others. This mess is known as the “mixed” economy. (There are, of course, some principled lobbyists who seek, not special privileges, but simply the right to be left alone–but their pleas fall on unprincipled ears.)

All this leads to widespread cynicism and demands for “campaign finance reform”–but it cannot work. To think that you can eliminate the cause–philosophical bankruptcy–by limiting its effects–the buying and selling of favors–is to think that you can eradicate mental illness by limiting the number of beds in mental hospitals. Real campaign finance reform requires philosophical reform. We must discard the notion of the “public interest” and replace it with the proper principle: individual rights, which means the freedom of each individual to pursue his own interests as long as he does not coerce or defraud others. This means: replace the mixed economy with real capitalism–no tariffs, no subsidies, no protection from competition, no favors.

How would such a system work in practice? Consider the recent hoopla over steel imports. It is reported that Bush is being pressured by some 50 different groups to either pass or not pass legislation that would put tariffs on steel imports or to ban some imports altogether. Which side will win? No one knows; probably the side that makes the most noise or has the most votes. But all this begging of favors could be eliminated on the spot if Bush simply articulated one simple principle: what buyers and sellers of steel do is none of the government’s business and I will take no part in interfering with the free market. End of lobbying; end of favor-seeking. No lobbyists would bother to show up at the White House or in Congress because no one would have anything to sell.

Only when politicians have no power to offer other men’s property–and their own souls–for sale in the name of the “public interest” will we have true “campaign finance” reform.

Edwin A. Locke, Dean’s Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Motivation at the University of Maryland at College Park, is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.