ATHENS, Greece — Paul Hamm ought to get two gold medals for this performance.
With his medal hopes all but gone after he hit the judges’ table on his vault landing, Hamm performed two of the most spectacular routines of his career to win the men’s all-around gymnastics title by the closest Olympics margin ever.
“I’m happy right now. Shocked, actually,” he said. “To be in first place after that kind of mistake, I thought there was no chance to win.”
Hamm needed a 9.825 on the high bar, his best event, to tie Kim Dae-eun of South Korea for gold, and he was dazzling. The highlights of his routine are three straight release moves, and he did them perfectly Wednesday night to become the first U.S. man to win the event.
Hamm, the reigning world champion from Waukesha, Wis., threw himself up and over the bar, catching it on the way down once, twice and then a third time, soaring higher with each toss.
Hamm’s dismount was perfect, and he hit the mat with a solid thud before thrusting his fists into the air and throwing his head back in amazement. He waved at the roaring crowd and then sprinted off the podium clapping his hands while his coach, Miles Avery, jumped up and down on the sideline.
“I thought I could win silver, maybe bronze,” Hamm said. “I didn’t think I could win gold until Miles said, ‘You’re the Olympic champion,’ and all I could think to say was, ‘No way!’ ”
Hamm finished with 57.823 points, beating Kim by .012. The previous closest margin in the event was .017 by Leon Stukelj of Yugoslavia against Robert Prazak of Czechoslovakia in the 1924 Games. The women also had .012, in 1992, when Ukraine’s Tatyana Gutsu edged American Shannon Miller.
Yang Tae-young of South Korea won the bronze. Brett McClure of the United States finished ninth. He had been fourth going into the final rotation, the still rings, but that is his worst event.
After Hamm’s victory, Avery grabbed him in a bear hug. His opponents did the same, then Hamm dropped into a chair, overwhelmed by what he had done. When his score of 9.837 flashed on the scoreboard, the arena went into a frenzy.
Vault is usually one of Hamm’s strongest events. He looked good when he hit the springboard and leapt forward, turning his body sideways before his hands hit the horse.
Springing backward, he did 11/2 somersaults, but he didn’t get enough height on the twists and hit the mat in a crouch. He had no chance to stabilize himself, his left leg crossing over the right and sending him on a sickening stumble.
Hamm looked dazed when he saw his score of 9.137, which dropped him all the way to 12th place and more than a half-point behind China’s Yang Wei, an almost insurmountable deficit. He had two events to go, but he had to be absolutely perfect and hope that one of the gymnasts in front of him would make a mistake.
Hamm did his part on his next event, the parallel bars. Going first, he flipped from one handstand right into another on the delicate bars. His dismount was textbook perfect and earned him a 9.837.
Then one by one, his competition fell away. First went Yang, who lost the gold to Russian star Alexei Nemov in Sydney and then finished second to Hamm at last year’s world championships.
Doing a one-armed pirouette on the high bar, Yang reached to grab the bar with his free hand and came away empty. Swinging wildly like a kid on monkey bars, Yang tried to hang on but couldn’t, dropping to the ground and taking his medal hopes with him.
Isao Yoneda of Japan fell later. Ioan Suciu of Romania stalled on a handstand. Marian Dragulescu couldn’t keep his arms locked on a flip on the parallel bars, sinking beneath the bar with his legs flailing.
When the rotation finally ended, Hamm had moved all the way back to fourth place,.313 points out of first.
“I dug down deep and fought for everything,” Hamm said. “It was the best performance of my life.”