Archive for Monday, November 1, 2004

Commentary: Olympian missed golden opportunity to be hero

November 1, 2004


In more than seven years, no commentaries I've done have generated more mail than my opinion that USA gymnast Paul Hamm should have offered to share or surrender his gold medal.

Editor's note: This is one in a series of commentaries by Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics and the Character Counts! coalition. He will speak Nov. 8 in Lawrence.

In the end, the comments were about equally divided, but those who disagreed were unusually emphatic and often abusive. Still, there's a lot of cogent analysis in the letters, and they make a great tutorial on ethical reasoning. I'll make a file available by the end of the week at

Hamm, strongly supported by millions of Americans as well as USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee, concluded that he was the sole and rightful possessor of the medal because the judging error that precipitated the crisis was offset by other mistakes. Attempts to distinguish discretionary errors from rule errors were rejected. Later, gymnastics' international governing body muddied the waters by asking Hamm to voluntarily return his medal.

It was predictable but still deplorable that this wonderful athlete, thrust into the eye of a storm through no fault of his own, was booed during his last Olympic appearance. Unfortunately, the grand spirit of sportsmanship and the wisdom of the Golden Rule have been drowned out by self-serving rationalizations, legalistic quibbling and political posturing on both sides of the issue.

Yes, I'm disappointed that Hamm missed an opportunity to make an immortalizing and uplifting gesture of sportsmanship, but his reasons were sincere and ethically defensible. While he didn't take what many of us think was the highest road available, he didn't do anything wrong. One can be a good person without being a hero or saint. Paul Hamm represented himself and our country with dedication and dignity and he deserves our congratulations and respect.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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