A couple days ago, Paul Hamm announced his retirement. Is he the most accomplished male American gymnast ever?
Or is he the greatest difference-maker of all time in the U.S. men's gymnastics program?
Or -- both?
There are those who would say that Kurt Thomas still holds the most profound legacy. In 1978, Thomas was the first American to win a gold medal in the floor exercise at a world championship. In 1979, he became the first gymnast to receive the James E. Sullivan Award, given to the best amateur athlete in the United States.
Thomas was expected to dominate at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Though the United States boycotted, Thomas nonetheless set the stage for "a lot of success, including ours," said Bart Conner, who himself won gold on the parallel bars at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and was part of the gold medal-winning U.S. team at those 1984 Games.
Even so, Conner said, "In terms of hard-core credentials -- you can't deny Paul's."
Is that where the debate starts? Or ends?
Simply put, you truly can't deny Hamm's credentials.
He is the 2003 all-around world champion. He is the 2004 all-around Olympic champion.
In Athens in 2004, he led the United States to a silver medal, the Americans' first medal at an Olympics in 20 years. He was the rock of silver-medal teams at the 2001 and 2003 worlds.
He earned five medals at the worlds. He has three Olympic medals.
It can be difficult now for many to remember the furor that enveloped Hamm amid those 2004 Olympic Games. A fall on the vault left him in 12th, with only two events left. Incredibly, he rallied to win gold.
"He had ice water in his veins," said Peter Vidmar, another of the 1984 team gold medalists who also won individual gold at those Los Angeles Games on the pommel horse, now chairman of the board at USA Gymnastics. "He was great under pressure."
Best, Hamm always had an elegant style to his routines: "He was able to make it look effortless," Conner said.
A couple days after Hamm's triumph, meanwhile, the international gymnastics federation, which goes by the acronym FIG, said that South Korea's Yang Tae-young had not been given the right start value on his next-to-last event. Add in the right value, an extra tenth of a point, and Yang would have scored higher than Hamm.
If, and this is a huge if, everything had played out exactly the same on the final rotation -- which, of course, no one can ever say.
Moreover, the Korean team did not protest in time. And FIG said it couldn't change results after the competition was over.
It took a full two months for all the legal wrangling to play out.
The crazy thing is that the process left Hamm in the position of having to defend his gold medal. And why? He did nothing wrong. All he did was perform under pressure, which is what anyone asks of a champion.
Another unfortunate aspect: Women's gymnastics typically gets way more favorable publicity, especially in the United States. In the ordinary circumstance, men's gymnastics in general, and Hamm in particular, stood to cash in -- literally and figuratively -- on that gold medal. Not in 2004. Not really.
To underscore how hard it is to do what Hamm did in 2003 and 2004:
In London this summer, perhaps the gymnast widely considered the best in the world, Japan's Kohei Uchimura, will come through, and win the all-around gold. Uchimura is the 2009, 2010 and 2011 world all-around champ.
But unless and until he wins in London -- Hamm is a member of a club, world and Olympic all-around champ, that Uchimura is not.
As Uchimura would know. He is the Beijing 2008 all-around silver medalist.
"Paul is the catalyst of the current era of success in men's gymnastics we are enjoying now," Vidmar said.
"He made everybody else better," added Kevin Mazeika, the U.S. team's national coordinator who in 2008 was the U.S. team coach. "When everybody is trying to beat not just the best guy in your country but the best guy in the world -- that just makes you better."
In Beijing, the U.S. men won bronze. That gave the Americans back-to-back team Olympic medals for the first time in history.
At last year's worlds, the U.S. men won bronze again. Danell Leyva won gold on parallel bars. At the 2010 worlds, Jonathan Horton was the all-around bronze medalist.
The thing about gymnastics is that the sport is so physically demanding -- you wonder what could have been.
In the lead-up to Beijing, Hamm was rocking his routines, "clicking on all cylinders and definitely positioned to make a very solid run at the all-around gold," as Mazeika put it.
Then, though, just 11 weeks before the Beijing opening ceremony, he broke a hand at the U.S. championships. The hand and an injured shoulder ultimately forced him to withdraw a few weeks before those Olympics.
In July, 2010, Hamm announced another comeback.
In early 2011, he tore his right labrum and rotator cuff.
Last September, in an episode that still seems entirely out of character, Hamm was arrested in Columbus, Ohio, accused of hitting and kicking a taxi driver, damaging the cab's window and refusing to pay a $23 fine. Last month, he pleaded no contest to two reduced charges, both misdemeanors.
With the court action out of the way, Hamm seemed poised for London.
But -- that right shoulder especially, he said, was "clicking and popping and creaking," making sounds "like when a squeaky door opens."
He added with a laugh, "It's tough to train through that."
Paul Hamm will turn 30 in September. Asked how he thinks he ought to be remembered in the history books, he said, "For being a tremendous athlete who was dedicated and focused and an amazing competitor. And remembered for my biggest accomplishments. And also remembered as a nice person."
Typical Paul Hamm -- no mention of medals won.
"What I saw him do was elevate our program more than anybody in the history of our sport," said Steve Penny, who has been with USA Gymnastics since 1999, its president since 2005.
"He became the Michael Jordan of men's gymnastics in the United States. He became Tiger Woods. He forced people to raise their game in order to compete with him, not just in our country but around the world.
"He showed that an American gymnast could rise to the level of any gymnast around the world. He is the only guy who has been able to do that."