As anyone who is even a remotely avid gymnastics fan should know by now, Paul Hamm pulled himself out of the 2008 U.S. Olympic MAG team. I was shocked to hear this news, but there is no time for the U.S. men's team to look back now. Raj Bhavsar, who was controversially sidelined in Athens as an alternate, was chosen to replace Hamm and will finally be in pursuit of his Olympic dream that was taken away from him four years back. (It is worth noting that the USA men gave up .887 to Japan on rings at the 2004 Olympic MAG team finals, and eventually lost the gold by .888. Bhavsar averaged a 9.7875 at the 2004 Olympic Trials, the highest rings total for any of the U.S. men, and the U.S. winded up counting a 9.125 in Athens TF from Jason Gatson) For those that are wondering whether USA can medal now that Paul Hamm is out, the answer is yes. Check this out:
With Raj on the team (Thanks to Denn333 and TCO from WWGYM for contributing the Nats/Oly Trials average scores )
USA MAG Weighted Average of All Four Scores from Nationals/Olympic Trials: 276.45
Dropping the lowest of the four scores for each gymnast: 278.517
Team Placements From 2007 Worlds
Silver: Japan (277.025)
Bronze: Germany (273.525)
5th: Korea (269.95)
6th: Spain (269.40)
7th: Russia (269.20)
8th: Romania (267.75)
Team Placements from 2008 Europeans (Not entirely comparable because of 5-3-3 format instead of 6-3-3)Note: Scores were not averaged here, I am just providing averages to show what there consistent scoring potential amounts to)
Gold: Russia (prelims: 273.175, finals: 272.45, avg: 272.8125, +3.6125 from Worlds)
Silver: Germany (prelims: 268.00, finals: 269.575, avg: 268.7875, -4.7375 from Worlds)
Bronze: Romania (prelims: 266.275, finals: 268.95 avg: 267.6125, -0.1375 from Worlds)
Prelims: Hamm, Hagerty, Horton, Spring, Bhavsar
Finals: Hamm, Hagerty, Horton (possibly Spring if he can upgrade his last pass, currently a double twist)
Finals: Hamm, Bhavsar, Tan
Prelims: Tan, Horton, Bhavsar, Spring, Hagerty
Finals: Tan, Horton, Bhavsar
Prelims: Bhavsar, Hamm, Horton, Spring, Hagerty
Finals: Any of the first four (Hagerty's vault is easier), Spring had the highest average among the members of the team from Nats/Olympic Trials and Hamm's score of 16.4 from Nationals Day one was the highest recorded from a member of this team at those two meets.
Prelims: Spring, Bhavsar, Horton, Hagerty, Tan
Finals: Spring, Bhavsar, Horton
Prelims: Hagerty, Hamm, Spring, Horton, Bhavsar
Finals: Hagerty, Hamm, Spring
Note: The prelims line-up for HB will be a relatively large decision to make, with Raj Bhavsar's AA prospects on the line. The weighted averages (40% Nats, 60% Trials) from Nats/Olympic Trials for Tan and Bhavsar's HB routines were 14.13 and 14.03 respectively, a mere .1 difference between the two. However, Tan's personal best on this event was a 15.05 from day one of Trials, whereas Bhavsar's is only a 14.1. However, Tan is capable of bombing to the fullest degree (12.55 on day 1 nats, 13.85 on day 2 trials) so he won't be touching team finals on that event. USA shouldn't be in danger of missing team finals, though they would want to get into the top four in prelims so that they won't have to end on pommel horse (5th and 6th ranked teams after prelims have to end on pommel horse). And while Raj and Joey Hagerty will not be looking at an AA medal, Raj did finish ahead of Joey on both days of trials in the AA. I would have to say Bhavsar has earned his status as an AAer at the Olympics.
Why Was Raj Bhavsar Picked Over Sasha Artemev?
Though it would at first seem logical to pick are strongest (when he hits) pommel horse worker given that pommels is USA's weakest event and all the more weaker without Paul Hamm, the powers that be for the U.S. men's selection committee decided to go with a different strategy. Looking at the overall picture, Bhavsar could contribute three events in team finals. Artemev on the other hand would only contribute on one event over Bhavsar, that of course being pommel horse. Rings is almost a given for Raj to perform in team finals, with parallel bars and vault being quite definite possibilities as well. Bhavsar outscored Artemev by sizable margins on all three events, and looking at the Nats/Trials weighted averages of Bhavsar vs. Artemev:
Advantage: Artemev 0.69
Artemev: (Using Spring's average instead because he is stronger here than Artemev): 14.805
Advantage: Bhavsar .775
Advantage: Bhavsar 0.15
Advantage: Bhavsar 0.22
Advantage: Bhavsar .455
He Kexin Age Debate-From Rumor to Media Firestorm
Falsifying ages of gymnasts is almost as synonymous with women's gymnastics as gymnasts falling off the beam. Cases of this have dated back to the 1980s, when the Soviet Union and Romania, the top two teams of the day, were later found out to have falsified countless gymnasts' birthdates to compete in world and/or Olympic competition. However, one of the most well-known and widely publicized age falsifying cases happened to a North Korean gymnast by the name of Kim Gwang Suk. Competing on the grand stage for the first time at the 1989 Worlds, Kim was competing as a "15" year-old when many believed she was 12 at the very oldest, likely more around 10. Kim's innovative uneven bars set was complete with two skills that would eventually bare her name. (straddled release move with a front flip into the bar, currently an F rated skill and a giant 1.5 to mixed grip, currently rated at a D) Kim's innovative bar set attracted attention at the '89 Worlds, but it would be two years later when she was rewarded with a gold medal and a perfect 10 at the 1991 Worlds for her daring display of athleticism on the bars. However, Kim was met with far more skepticism than congratulation after her Worlds win. Suk came to the 1992 Olympics as one of the favorites for uneven bar gold, all the while claiming to be 17 with missing front teeth and a tiny 4'4'' frame suggesting her age was anything but. Bela Karolyi thought Kim was underage, commenting famously "Her milk teeth are falling out, which is a good indication she's not even 11." The judges weren't convinced either, shutting Kim out of the medals when many believed her bars performance in event finals was worthy of at least a bronze.
Eventually, the North Korean team was banned from the 1993 Worlds, but Kim was allowed to keep her '91 World bars gold and all of the other medals she won. Now, in such a case where age falsification was proven, North Korea broke the rules and were caught. However, allowing Kim to keep all of her medals while technically an underage gymnast speaks volumes to the fact that while this age requirement is perhaps a good idea, it will ultimately never be followed by those with any chance to act otherwise (i.e. the Communist countries), because the consequences are meager at best. If the rule cannot be enforced, why is there such a rule in the first place? Several gymnasts admit afterwards (Goegan, Marinescu, and now Yang Yun being recent examples) that they were indeed underage to compete at the Olympics, in addition to other international meets such as the World Championships. Is there anything that can be done? You are doubtful to ever find either the FIG or IOC doing a damn thing in these kinds of scenarios, and things are unlikely to be any different this summer and beyond. The most we can realistically hope for is if the Chinese gymnasts' scores are lower than deserved.
The Olympic Games is where the best athletes from around the globe come together to compete for the glory of victory, and the pride of one's own sport and country. He Kexin is said by many to be the best bar worker in the world. So if she's the best, bloody let her compete without any of this age restriction nonsense. I can understand the FIG's worry for young athletes to compete in major events before they are mentally ready, but several cases have proven that young gymnasts can compete at an exceptionally high level and perform well to boot. Nadia Comaneci won the European AA title at the age of 13 and when on to score her seven perfect 10's at 14 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. And of course we have the current case of United States figure skaters Mirai Nagasu, Rachael Flatt, and Caroline Zhang not being eligible to compete for the senior world championships when they are clearly USA's top 3 skaters at the moment, not the 3 ladies (Kimmie Meissner, Ashley Wagner, Bebe Liang) who we had to send to senior Worlds. Does that make sense? I think not. Nor does allowing the best bar worker in the world, who has hit EVERY bar set this year (including one in front of the Chinese president), be scrutinized for being too young when China will realize she is an asset to the team regardless of her age.
If China is willing to risk putting Kexin and Jiang Yuyaun (who was no slouch herself at last year's Worlds and has only gotten better at meets since then) on its Olympic team when there is a possibility of getting caught with "cheating," then these gymnasts have to be mentally and physically ready for the Games and have to be proven assets to the team. Those qualities are a requirement for any athlete wanting to compete in Beijing, and if the Chinese are gowing to all the trouble of falsifying birth dates to get these girls on the Olympic team, then that alone proves that their ability is most definitely worthy of competing at the Olympics. It should be up to those in charge to decide whether a gymnast is mentally and physically ready for the biggest competition of their life, not an age rule that is going to be broken anyway.
Ultimately, we are all different and the same is true for the athletes. One gymnast can peak at a very early age (which could prove to be the case of Kexin) and some athletes, Alicia Sacramone being an example, will end up peaking at a later stage of their career. And of course we have the inspirational Oksana Chusovitina looking better than ever at 33 and about to compete at her 5th Olympic Games. But to deny athletes who are early bloomers of competing at the biggest meet of their life is unfair in my opinion. I in no way support China's cheating, or anyone's cheating for that matter. However, I will be the first to say that He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan are exceptional gymnasts that deserve to compete in the Olympic Games. They have the skills, polish, and they have proven that they are good competitors as well. In the case of another young Chinese gymnast who didn't make the team, Sui Lu, it was clearly too much too soon for her. However, the case differs per athlete, and some will reach their peak at a young age and some when they are older. So my final words are these: FIG, why keep a rule you cannot impose anyway, and why require several top gymnasts' dreams to be put in hold (or require cheating) when the Olympics is about the best in the world coming together to battle for the gold? I believe whole-heartedly that He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan are too young, and I believe China is indeed cheating by letting them compete. But could you imagine an uneven bar final without He Kexin, an all-around final without Jiang Yuyuan, or a team final without either athlete playing major contributions to China's quest for gold? I certainly couldn't.
Paul Hamm's relatively shocking announcement to take himself off the Olympic team could indeed be the end of this gymnast who did wonders for USA's success and kept viewers captivated over stunning gymnastics and stunning comebacks alike. The U.S. women's team was always the team that won the medals, got all of the attention, and attracted viewers to the sport of artistic gymnastics. The men's team never had such luck. After a team gold medal at the boycotted 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the U.S. men finished a dismal 11th in 1988. A 6th place would follow in 1992, and 5th have to do in 1996 and 2000. Through the years of John Roethlisberger and Blaine Wilson, the U.S. men could still never find their potential. Then all of a sudden came Paul Hamm, a cool head under pressure who had the entire package of difficulty and execution. Despite inconsistency at the 2000 Olympic Games and a missed shot at a world AA medal at the 2001 Worlds which resulted in a bloody nose as opposed to an intended podium finish, Paul staked his claim to the top at the 2003 World Championships, winning the AA over nemesis Yang Wei of China. Paul also helped the team win a silver medal, and was looking for even greater glory one year later in Athens.
August 18th, 2004. The USA men had won silver, a glorious result in comparison with past finishes. But the AA final was scheduled to be Paul Hamm's tonight. The scoreboard after three rotations read Paul Hamm's name at the top, with top rival Yang Wei not too far behind. Staring down the vaulting runway, Paul had done this vault several times in competition before and it wasn't of anyone's concern that he would perform it any differently. As he sprinted forward, disaster loomed. Suddenly, Paul found himself not standing on the blue mat in between the white lines, but sitting down inches away from the judges. The fall meant no gold, a medal of any color seemed out of the question. However, mistakes clawed their way into other gymnasts' routines, and all of a sudden Yang Wei was off the high bar. A door had been opened. With two events remaining, Paul nailed his parallel bar set like there was no tomorrow. Needing a 9.825 to get AA gold, Paul delivered a performance for the ages, and ended up as with the gold meal that a short 30 minutes earlier most would've considered improbable for Hamm to get, having to climb 11 spots after his disaster on the vault. But it was Paul Hamm who conquered the most impossible of tasks and ultimately got the job done.
On that night, I knew hardly anything about gymnastics, but I jumped up and down with excitement when I saw Paul Hamm's name plastered in the first place column on the scoreboard. But a short two days later, an incredible comeback would be marred by an incredible scandal. When all was said and done, Paul Hamm would remain the champion, but was now perceived by almost everyone in a different manner. Not an athlete who had one of the greatest Olympic comebacks in history, but an athlete who had slipped by a scoring error to win a gold that didn't belong to him. Three years later, Paul Hamm began a stunning comeback. Victories at the Winter Cup, American Cup, and the Pacific Rim suddenly made everyone realize that the Paul Hamm vs. Yang Wei rivalry would get one final chance on the sport's biggest stage after all.
Paul was in the best form of his life by the time Nationals came by, and a broken hand suffered in the last seconds of his parallel bars routine would prove to be the undoing of finally proving to be the world's best gymnast in Beijing, this time without debate or scandal. Paul Hamm withdrew his position from the team when realizing his contribution could not be utilized because of an ill-timed injury, a decision painting a picture far away from what many have said about Paul's supposedly arrogant demeanor. While Paul Hamm's Olympic aspirations have been fulfilled twice and his bid for a third Games will have to come to a close, at least for now. This paves the way for Raj Bhavsar to finally achieve his dream to become an Olympian after all of the turmoil of being an alternate in 2004 when many considered him worthy of making the team. And for me, that is bittersweet. Paul Hamm put the USA men back on the map for medals, and Hamm himself has certainly inspired more than a few people when it comes to coming back when all appears to be over. With Hamm, one should always expect the unexpected, and if he comes back to go for London 2012 as good as ever I honestly wouldn't be surprised. Who knew Wisconsin cheese created champions. Kidding, of course. But Paul Hamm has always amazed me, whether it was coming back after a fall on the vault to win the Olympic AA crown or looking in the best shape of his career after a 2 1/2 year break from gymnastics. And I seriously doubt that is the last we will be seeing of him, even if he is nowhere to be found in a gym.
That is all.