ATHENS, Greece – For 10 minutes, the crowd booed and whistled, creating a deafening roar. Paul Hamm (search) sat around and waited to start his routine. A week's worth of controversy in gymnastics boiled over into the stands Monday during a bizarre, extraordinary evening.
Hamm was able to block out the noise and win a silver medal on high bar, and four-time Olympic gold medalist Alexei Nemov (search) finished fifth, much to the chagrin of the crowd.
On a night when American all-around champion Carly Patterson (search) won silver on the beam to give the U.S. women their sixth medal, and Romania's Catalina Ponor won gold on beam and floor, it was the high bar routine that everybody wanted to see.
Hamm scored a 9.812, tying Igor Cassina for first, but the Italian won a tiebreaker to take the gold. Japan's Isao Yoneda won bronze.
The showdown on the last event of the night was supposed to be between Hamm, the all-around champion, and Yang Tae-young of South Korea, who won bronze instead of gold in that event last week because of a scoring error.
But it was Nemov's routine that caused the uproar — the crowd was furious over his score. Hamm, scheduled to perform next, waited until the Russian asked fans for quiet before going ahead with his routine.
"I've never heard it that loud in my life," Hamm said. "I felt like I was in a movie."
Flying like a circus acrobat, Nemov put together the riskiest, most daring performance of the 10 men on the high bar. He did six release moves — four in a row and two more in which he did full somersaults while flying over the bar.
To the untrained eye, they all looked perfect; the only hiccup in the routine appeared to be a slight step forward on the dismount.
Or at least that's what the fans thought.
When his score came up, a 9.725 that made him last of the three competitors to that point, the booing began. At first, it seemed funny and Nemov laughed along, even bowing to the crowd, many of whom waved Greek and Russian flags and chanted in their native tongues.
"My opinion is that it was a little unfair," Nemov said.
Hamm was up next. His name was announced and he stepped up to the podium, but the booing didn't stop. He stepped off the podium, paced, then finally took a seat, realizing the whistling and jeering wasn't going to end soon.
Then something strange happened, a new score popped up — a 9.762 thanks to a slight change by the Malaysian judge.
"I've never seen the crowd call for a judges' meeting and get it. But that's what happened," said John Roethlisberger, a three-time American Olympian who was in the arena.
But the slight change didn't alter Nemov's ranking.
More booing. More delay. The public-address announcer came on and implored the crowd for silence. Twice. It didn't work either time. Nemov just sat there smiling, but minute by minute, the outburst became embarrassing.
Finally, Hamm and his coach, Miles Avery, motioned Nemov to the podium and the Russian asked for silence. The crowd finally relented.
"It was a class act by Alexei," said USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi, who had seen this much booing only one other time — at a rhythmic gymnastics meet. "What he did was in the true Olympic spirit."
And Hamm's performance was a picture of the Olympic ideal.
"I basically had to tell myself to focus," he said. "It was so distracting."
Twirling under the most awkward of circumstances, he was practically flawless. He brilliantly executed his trademark three straight release moves without any problem, took a slight step forward on the landing and received ... a 9.812, a mark that easily outdistanced Nemov.
It was also met with raucous boos.
Next came Cassina, who put on a great performance for another 9.812. A complex tiebreaking formula used in gymnastics put him ahead of Hamm and gave him a surprise championship.
Yang was the last competitor of the night, but his routine was anticlimactic. He banged his foot on the bar during a release move, almost hit his knees on the landing and finished last of the 10 gymnasts, a result that nobody from any country can protest.
After the gymnasts cleared the floor, the judges followed them off and were greeted again by boos. During the medals ceremony, officials put the silver around Hamm and the gesture was greeted with a mix of cheers and boos — a strange ending to an awfully strange night.
Hamm's brother, Morgan, also went on bars and finished fourth, losing in a tie at 9.787 to Yoneda.
"I'd never been in a competition where the crowd was that loud," Morgan said. "I thought it was a little bit exciting to see the reaction to gymnastics like that."