Paul Hamm won’t be going to the Beijing Olympics, after all.
The reigning Olympic gold medalist announced Monday that he is withdrawing from the U.S. team because he is not sufficiently healthy enough to compete. Besides his broken right hand, he strained his left rotator cuff in his accelerated recovery effort.
“This has been the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. But I have too much respect for the Olympics and my team to continue on when I know the best thing for everyone is for me to step aside,” Hamm said.
“I did everything I possibly could,” the 25-year-old added. “There just wasn’t enough time. I feel like if I had another month, I would have been able to get the job done.”
The U.S. men are scheduled to leave Wednesday, and competition begins Aug. 9.
One of the alternates—Sasha Artemev, David Durante and Raj Bhavsar—will take Hamm’s place. Dennis McIntyre, the men’s program director for USA Gymnastics, said the selection committee will meet and make a decision as soon as possible.
“We’re going to go back through with the committee and review all of the scores, all of the results and make a determination of which athlete brings the most to the team and the team’s success,” McIntyre said.
Hamm’s injury is a blow to the Americans, who were fourth at last year’s world championships and hoped his return—and that of twin brother Morgan— would get them back on the podium. It also clears the way for China’s Yang Wei in the all-around race. Yang, the two-time defending world champion, is so technically superior that Hamm is believed to be the only one who could challenge him.
“When you go into the Olympic Games, you’re supposed to be in the best shape of your life,” Hamm said. “Not the worst shape.”
He broke his hand May 22 at the national championships, just 11 weeks before the start of the games. He had surgery five days later and pushed his recovery in hopes he’d be healthy enough to help the Americans win a medal and defend his all-around title.
But a hand injury is one of the toughest for a gymnast to overcome. Every one of the six events puts a heavy load of stress on the hand, and many moves require the hand to be twisted sharply or to support a gymnast’s entire body weight.
Hamm appeared to be on track at a weeklong training camp two weeks ago, where he proved he was physically able to compete at a July 19 intrasquad meet. Hamm did portions of all six events that day, looking particularly good on floor exercise, and estimated he was about 90 percent healthy.
But he struggled with some skills on parallel bars and acknowledged he still had pain in the hand. The day after the intrasquad, he noticed the pain in his rotator cuff.
When he returned home to Columbus, Ohio, it was clear just what a toll the hard training had taken.
“The week after camp has been a disaster,” Hamm said. “I was giving myself a chance to see how this past week went, to see if I could turn the corner at any point. That just never happened. I feel like I’m actually worse off than I was in the previous week.
“If you would have ever seen me before any competition and how my preparation is compared to what it is now, it’s almost laughable the difference.”
The Americans would have needed Hamm to compete on all six events in team qualifying, and likely would have put him up on all six in team finals, too. The scoring format in team finals is unforgiving, with three athletes competing on each event and all three scores counting. Make a mistake or struggle, and it costs the team dearly.
Hamm said he talked with USA Gymnastics officials about going to Beijing and only doing a few events. But that isn’t realistic or fair, he said.
“The fact I’m unable to do rings, which is one of events the team absolutely needs me to do, makes it very difficult for me to think it’s advantageous for the team to have me over there. There are three alternates that are tremendous athletes that are in the best shape of their lives now.
“They can easily fill the spot and do a better job that I can currently.”
Hamm’s withdrawal likely ends the career of one of the best gymnasts the United States has ever had. He is the only American man to win the world (2003) and Olympic (2004) titles, and he led the United States to a silver medal in Athens, their first at the Olympics in 20 years.
“We admire Paul for making this difficult decision,” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics.
Hamm won the Olympic gold medal in Athens with one of the most spectacular comebacks in history. After a fall on vault dropped him to 12th place with only two events left, he rallied with two of the best routines of his career to win the gold.
Two days later, however, the International Gymnastics Federation said that bronze medalist Yang Tae-young of South Korea had been wrongly docked a tenth of a point on his second-to-last event. Add that extra tenth, and Yang would have scored higher than Hamm.
That assumes, though, that everything in the final rotation would have played out the same, something no one can say for sure.
The Koreans did not protest in time, and the FIG said it couldn’t change results after the games. But the Koreans took the matter all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, forcing Hamm to defend his gold medal. CAS eventually declared Hamm the rightful champion.
“His inspiring comeback to win the Olympic gold medal in 2004 was one of the signature moments of the Athens Olympic Games,” said Jim Scherr, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “Equally inspiring is the manner by which Paul worked to try to regain his full competitive form for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.”
Despite taking 2 1/2 years off after Athens—an unprecedented layoff in the sport—Hamm had firmly established himself as a contender for another gold, winning every meet he entered this year, often by large margins. At nationals, he was practically perfect through his first five events before breaking the fourth metacarpal—the bone extending from his right ring finger to his wrist— in the closing minutes of his parallel bars routine.
Even with the injury, he still finished the night almost four points ahead.
Credit: Associated Press