by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I have never won an Olympic gold medal, so it is not for me to tell someone what he should do with his. But certain “experts” last week didn’t let that stop them. They strongly suggested Paul Hamm, the U.S. Olympic gymnast, should take his gold medal, press it into the chest of his South Korean competitor, and say, “Here, this is yours. You keep it.”

These pundits suggested this not because the rules demand it — we learned in Athens that gymnastics rules are like the New England weather; wait a few minutes and you see something new — but rather, as one columnist put it, “Hamm would reap benefits he cannot yet imagine.”

Or, as another writer said, “such a gesture would carve his name into the marble of sports history” and give Hamm “the instant book contract, the big commercial endorsements and speaking engagements for big money to the end of time.”


Well, in that case, what’s he waiting for?

Look, I could no more do a handspring than I could leap a building, but I know this much: The kid from Wisconsin did nothing wrong, did everything right, and had the biggest week of his life stained by a bunch of incompetent judges.

Telling him he can make up for it with endorsement contracts is not exactly good medicine.

The latest reality show

Then again, it is pretty much what the Olympics have come down to in this country, isn’t it? As the Athens Olympics draw to a close, you will see countless features on “the big winners” of these Games. And I promise you, there won’t be an archer or a cyclist among them — even if one reaped gold.

The “winners” will be determined by those who can parlay their success into something the average American truly can relate to: money, fame and TV appearances. It’s as if the two weeks of athletic competition is just another form of “American Idol,” in which the big winner gets to hawk a soft drink or make a five-minute appearance on “Will and Grace.”

Well, if those are the spoils awaiting Paul Hamm if he gives up his medal, I say, Paul, hang on to that baby tight. I saw nothing in his disciplined performance or humble demeanor to suggest Hollywood or Madison Avenue is the reason he has flipped and tumbled most of his life.

He came for gold. And he got it.

Too bad he can’t enjoy it.

A ridiculous request

Hamm’s “controversy” was not of his making. He won the all-around gold in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion, then later learned the judges had erred with the level of difficulty on South Korea’s Yang Tae-young’s parallel bar routine. The tenth of a point mistake — if awarded after the final scores — would have nudged Yang into first place.

But that’s all after the fact. The mistake occurred in the middle of competition, and once you change one thing during a competition — such as who is in the lead — you change everything. Maybe Yang would have pressed more in first place. Maybe Hamm would have been more intimidated. In any case, you can’t say all would have been the same.

What is laughable is the International Gymnastics Federation asking Hamm to surrender his medal. Since those officials can’t pick competent judges, they ask Hamm to clean up their mess.

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee, which has always treated the Games as a throne and the athletes as its subjects, flatly refused a better idea, to issue a second gold medal for Yang. Said IOC president Jacques Rogge: “We are not going to give medals for so-called humanitarian or emotional reasons.”

Right. We don’t want humanity or emotion in the Olympics, do we?

The expression goes, “You break it, you bought it.” Paul Hamm didn’t break it. If he wanted to exchange his medal, that would be his business. But to tell him that by doing so he’d be a bigger hero — and more rich and famous — is to put all the things the Olympics are not about ahead of what they are. By refusing, Hamm seems to be the only one clear about what an athlete is.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or”


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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