I guess being men's Olympic champion ain't what it used to be.
The USA Gymnastics 2012 Winter Cup press release mentioned 68 Olympic hopefuls before barely mentioning that Paul Hamm, a 2004 Olympic champion, would also be competing Super Bowl weekend in Las Vegas.
If anyone is paying attention, that's the men's 2004 Olympic all-around champion.
Nadia is the Olympic champion. Do you think Nadia's name is passed over 68 times by other people in any article containing her name?
Yes, the USAG press release was written in dated, most recent competition context, but that is not the point.
The main point is just this simple: The USA men have a great chance to win a team medal at the London Olympics, and those chances are improved greatly if Paul Hamm can swing pommel horse in the Olympic team final competition. Three men up, three compete, three scores count ... Alex Naddour, Hamm and John Orozco.
Stay healthy, hit the other five events just as hard, and fight off the improving competition performance efforts of the Russians, Germans, Ukrainians and Brits, and you're in a fight for the bronze medal. And maybe the Japanese and Chinese men stumble a little as they did in Tokyo, catch hold of some podium momentum and a perfect storm, and you may climb the medal ladder come July 30.
Who knows what may happen in London? What will the next six months of training and competition bring for the American men's national team? Who will stay healthy and injury free? Who will improve? Where may the Olympic-year spotlight(s) fall?
Four competitions intersect these next six months: Winter Cup (Las Vegas-Feb.); U.S. National Championships (St. Louis-June); U.S. Olympic Trials (San Jose-June/July); and then the London Games (July-Aug.).
And with each succeeding competition the press entourage will grow and the media focus will be brighter. For those competitions which include both the men's and women's national teams and national competitors, the focus of the national media corps will be intense and will only get stronger as London draws closer.
Winter Cup is a fascinating and important competition on several levels, but the media won't be there. Unless it's there to follow Paul Hamm. Four years ago, the Hamm brothers garnered a smattering of national press at Winter Cup, and USAG sent Susan Polakoff to be a media shepherd. But that was before the Olympic champion had his unexpected YouTube moment in the back seat of a Columbus, Ohio, taxi cab.
"Nothing good happens after midnight."
So, why was Paul Hamm, the Olympic all-around champion, who is competing in one-of-three ginormous pre-Olympic competitions, buried in USAG's Jan. 23rd press release? Hamm was relegated to a brief mention in the sixth paragraph with zero mention of any past honors.
When did "Olympic champion" become merely a footnote? The first three paragraphs of the USAG release could have been written much differently without sacrificing any journalistic intent.
Writing national junior team member Adrian de los Angeles' name before that of an Olympic champion strikes as a bit odd, and begs the question, Why?
Does anyone think someone from the national sporting press (if any) will be coming to cover Winter Cup for any other reason than Paul Hamm? Winter Cup is held in a drafty barn of an arena with go-karts and a batting cage attached, on the edge of the Vegas airport, and buried in the throes of a Super Bowl Vegas Weekend. What reporter is coming to write about Winter Cup?
The USAG just distanced themselves from "bad boy" with "bad press" Paul Hamm. Just disregard the fact that the Olympic champion may, in fact, help the USA men win an Olympic medal because of his international reputation and that he can swing great pommel horse under podium pressure. Hamm had too much to drink ONE night. Do you think the Russian delegation cares?! They hope he falls off pommels, and nothing more than that. The Russians and others will show respect to the Olympic all-around champ.
Paul Hamm, Olympic champion, should enter the Las Vegas Sports Arena with a positive attitude, and expect nothing less in return from the gymnastics community. Problem is, the American gymnastics community has a long history of being just a bit too stuffy-and-touchy when it comes to anything slightly off the straight-and-narrow path of required conformity.
Don't Rock The Boat is a USAG motto; not just now, but as the USGF and AAU before. Yes, the pristine image of teenage athletes (gymnasts) is what the USOC and USAG sponsors want and pay for, but all athletes are human, with human frailties. A 28-year-old male athlete should not be expected to be "perfect" and be held to the same public perceptions as is the cute-and-tuff, 16-year-old, teenage, high school sophomore, female gymnast. Common sense explains the standards are not the same for two diverse athletes in two entirely different age groups.
So, let's hope the gymnastics community at Winter Cup and at the following competitions — the judges and MPC — will evaluate Paul Hamm solely on his gymnastics and his current Olympic potential, and nothing else.
If you think this is exaggerated ... just go ask Bela and Marta Karolyi about their reception to the American gymnastics community. If the women's gymnastics powers could have tarred-and-feathered them both and sent them back to Romania on the first boat, they would have done just that. Be damned if these two gymnastics coaches could HELP American girls actually WIN in the international arena.
I was there in the 1980s in Ft. Worth at the USGF to watch first-hand, front-row the women's program place as much dynamite as possible at the feet of the Karolyis to impede their progress. Not once did it consider how the Karolyis could help America's gymnasts reach greater goals than the stale, also-ran teams they, the USA women's program, had been producing (in the face of improving talent) for the past two decades. These "professional" adults had placed themselves ahead of the goodwill of the amateur athletes. That's the same, exact reason the AAU was destroyed and stripped of its Olympic pedigree by the USOC and NCAA and the Amateur Sports Act passed by congress in 1976.
Greed and Ego.
Greed and ego infected the entire women's program. An infection which would ensnare the women's judges, as well. Hilary Grivich, just one of many Karolyi gymnasts at the 1992 Olympic Trials, was intentionally kept off the Olympic team because of gymnastics "politics" and nothing more — the anti-Karolyi backlash.
Did anyone see the truly animated, high-octane "conversation" Bela had with one Mike Jacki in Baltimore after a little teenage girl from Houston got cheated out of her performance-earned right to the Olympics? Cheated by a group of "straight-and-narrow" adults who had conspired against the Karolyis with one of those famous gymnastics community's whispering campaigns.
And to make the story worse, four years earlier these same adults tried hard to keep Brandy Johnson off the 1988 Olympic team. Brandy was not an elite Karolyi name like Phoebe Mills, and the American community of women's judges placed her sixth at nationals and fourth at Olympic Trials ... Somehow, at the Seoul Olympics, the international judges didn't drink the anti-Karolyi Kool-Aid and placed Brandy 10th all-around in the world, the highest of her team.
So, let us hope the USA men's powers-that-be will allow Paul Hamm a fair evaluation of his gymnastics as we start here at Winter Cup and move toward a media blizzard of all things in Olympic blanket coverage. Which will showcase all the wonderful positives attributed to gymnastics, sports, Olympics and success, but which will also document the warts of the human experience as it applies to athletics and athletes.
The press will re-visit YouTube many times over, and they will ask the same questions over and over. Even good breeding, a classic college education at J-school, and good manners won't stop the media. They are pigs when it comes to dirt on famous persons. They can't help themselves. Papparazzi sells! The media are like sharks and blood, and blood in this case is a drunken assault charge which will eventually be dropped to a misdemeanor, a fine of restitution, and community service.
Facts: Paul Hamm was arrested. He appeared in court and plead not guilty to three charges as reported by USA Today Jan. 11, 2012. Court dates are pending as per AP. Who knows what will be the future disposition of this court case.
And let's be crystal clear here with the legal terms. The buzzwords of "arrest, assault, drunk and disorderly" do NOT represent the same "crimes" as those of Olympic diver Bruce Kimball, or the NFL's Donte Stallworth, or track's Marion Jones, and other high profile athletes charged and convicted of felonies.
One has yet to read any story about how "thoughtful and right minded" Paul Hamm was in retrospect not to drive his own vehicle once leaving a Columbus tavern. It's pounded into our collective heads by MADD: "Take a taxi." No one was hurt and no property damage occured in a car accident caused by an impaired driver.
Some politicians wanted to cite Olympian Michael Phelps over a cell phone photo in South Carolina, but he is still swimming and selling Subways. Do people think Olympic fighters and wrestlers are squeaky clean? Olympic gold medalist Muhammad Ali was a "draft dodger;" now a saint. Bode Miller went "old school" at the Olympics and partied hardy, and he is still skiing and winning races despite a ton of negative press.
Paul Hamm has an opportunity to play an important part in the London Olympics. And that "part" is being a part of the American men's team with the goal of an Olympic medal. His gymnastics preparation and competition results should be the only determining factors, and any whispering campaign(s) aimed to influence judges and officals alike, which doomed Grivich, should remain mute.
The press will ask all sorts of questions, and you can't run-and-hide from them by placing mention of the Olympic champion in the sixth paragraph of an obscure Monday USAG press release in an Olympic year.
Just keep all in perspective. Paul Hamm went overboard on YouTube. And the media, in general, are crazy. Focus on the gymnastics, and on who are the five best American gymnasts to send to London to walk onto the podium come men's team finals.
Ward Black is a former editor of USA Gymnastics magazine.