Some silver medals shine more brightly than others. When you've labored in anonymity and the shadow of pixies your entire career, suffering injuries, embarrassment and pain for all your trouble; when it's been 20 years since your country's team has stood on an Olympic podium; when in the 108-year history of the Games the team has never won a medal on foreign soil--well, a thick piece of silver looks pretty good.
That's certainly the way the U.S. men's gymnastics team felt on Monday night, after coming from behind to pass Romania in the final two rotations and win the first men's team medal since the U.S. squad won gold in the Soviet-boycotted Los Angeles Games of 1984. "I don't know who said, 'It stinks to get the silver, because you lost the gold,'" said Blaine Wilson, 30, the inspirational leader of the team, who was competing in his third, and last, Olympics. "But hey, we won the silver."
Any disappointment they might have felt by falling short of their hopes for gold was assuaged by the quality of the team that beat them. Japan was spectacular, dominating the preliminaries on Saturday, then surviving a slow start on Monday to win the gold medal going away. Not only were the Japanese the best team, they may have been the only team hungrier for redemption than the Americans. Japan once owned men's gymnastics, winning five straight team golds from 1960 through '76 before inexplicably becoming a second-tier power. Since 1980 they'd won just three bronze medals and were shut out in Atlanta and Sydney.
"Japan shocked me," said the U.S.'s Paul Hamm, who was the top scorer in the preliminaries and was to compete for the all-around title and four individual apparatus titles. "After watching them in the preliminaries, I thought, How could they be that good?"
Still, the U.S. didn't make it easy for them. In a new finals format implemented this year, each country picked three gymnasts to compete on each apparatus and all three of their scores counted. (In the old format five gymnasts would compete and the low score was thrown out.) The U.S. strategy? Double up on the Hamm. Paul, 21, competed in five of the six events, and his twin brother, Morgan, was in four. The other nine rotations were divided among Wilson, Jason Gatson, Brett McClure and Guard Young.
Turned out there wasn't enough Hamm to go around. After the first two rotations, the floor and the pommel horse, the U.S. had a slim lead over Romania and Japan. Then came the still rings, in which neither twin was entered. The event cost the team a chance at gold, and nearly cost it a medal. Young scored only 9.475 and Gatson, who floated on his iron cross, had a devastating 9.125. Wilson, at least, scored 9.637. The Americans lost .887 to the Japanese on that one rotation. Japan's final margin of victory? .888.
Gatson atoned with a spectacular 9.825 on the parallel bars, the highest score for the U.S. all night. Then, in the final rotation, Romania's Razvan Dorin Selariu fell off the high bar and his team plunged from first to third. The U.S. had its silver--the same color the men had won at the last two world championships, in 2001 and '03. "For so long other countries counted us out," said Paul Hamm, who made a silver-saving recovery near the end of his high-bar routine after his right hand slipped off the bar following one of his release moves. "But after what we've done at the last two worlds, and now the Olympics, they're going to have to worry about us."
Certainly as long as the Hamms are competing, the rest of the world will have to worry, which means for at least four more years. Beyond that, it would be a stretch to say U.S. men's gymnastics has turned a corner permanently. Without the twins, the U.S. is a fifth-place team, which is where it finished in the last two Olympics. The Hamms, it appears, are to U.S. gymnastics what the Mahre brothers were to U.S. skiing in the 1980s, the leaders of a brief run of success in a major Olympic sport. But it sure is sweet while it lasts.