Paul Hamm can keep his Olympic gold medal.
Sports' highest court rejected a South Korean appeal Thursday, ruling that Hamm is the rightful champion in the men's all-around gymnastics competition at the Athens Games.
"This is, obviously, a great day for me," Hamm said. "The decision from CAS confirms what I've always felt in my heart, which is that I was champion that night and Olympic gold medalist."
The decision by a three-judge panel from the Court of Arbitration for Sport ends a saga that began more than two months ago when South Korea's Yang Tae-young claimed a scoring error cost him the title.
Yang asked the court to order international gymnastics officials to change the results, and adjust the medal rankings so he would get the gold and Hamm the silver. But the CAS panel dismissed the appeal, leaving Hamm with the gold and Yang with his bronze. Kim Dae-eun of South Korea was the silver medalist.
The verdict is final and cannot be appealed.
"An error identified with the benefit of hindsight, whether admitted or not, cannot be a ground for reversing a result of a competition," the CAS panel said.
Yang could not be reached for comment, but the South Korean Olympic Committee said it accepted the ruling.
"We are sorry about the court's decision but accept it," the Koreans said in a statement. "We are sorry that we could not live up to the expectations of the people who have shown concern and encouraged us."
Hamm won the gold Aug. 18, rallying from 12th place with only two events left to become the first American man to win gymnastics' biggest prize. But two days later, gymnastics officials discovered that Yang had been wrongly docked a tenth of a point on his second-to-last routine, the parallel bars.
Yang ended up with the bronze, 0.049 points behind Hamm. Add that extra 0.100, though, and Yang would have finished on top, 0.051 points ahead of the American.
That, however, assumes everything in the final rotation played out the same way -- a big if.
"For a variety of reasons related to the reality of athletic competition and the human psyche, simply changing the parallel bars result would not necessarily ... produce the true outcome," said Jeff Benz, general counsel for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The International Gymnastics Federation acknowledged the scoring error and suspended three judges. But it said repeatedly it would not change the results because the South Koreans didn't protest until after the meet.
In their ruling, the CAS arbitrators said the Korean protest was submitted too late -- and added that CAS was not in a position to correct results even if a mistake were admitted.
"The solution for error, either way, lies within the framework of the sport's own rules" and does not allow for a judge or arbitrator to step in later, the CAS panel said.
Hamm said he was heartened by the decision, not just for his sake, but for athletes in all sports.
"It keeps the integrity of the sport by ending the competition that night," he said. "You need that. People will lose interest if the decision isn't made until a week later."
Or in his case, more than two months later.
"This process has been difficult, and I would have liked not to have to deal with it," Hamm said. "It was something I had to deal with, and I'm just glad that it's over at this point."
The South Koreans continued to press their case in Athens after FIG rejected their appeal, approaching both the USOC and the International Olympic Committee in hopes of getting Yang a gold medal. It brought back memories of the figure skating scandal at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, when Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were given duplicate gold medals after a French judge said she had been "pressured" to put a Russian couple ahead of them.
There were no such signs of impropriety in this case, and IOC president Jacques Rogge flatly refused to even consider the idea of giving Yang a gold medal.
But then FIG president Bruno Grandi confused the issue, writing a letter to Hamm and asking him to surrender the gold medal voluntarily. In the letter, Grandi wrote, "The true winner of the all-around competition is Yang Tae-young."
Hamm got the letter after he returned to the United States, and he said it was probably his "toughest time" in the whole episode.
"That's one thing I would really love to have is an apology from FIG," Hamm said. "I thought they handled the situation very poorly."
Indeed, buoyed by Grandi's statement, Yang filed an appeal on the final day of the games with CAS.
A three-judge panel heard Yang's appeal on Sept. 27, six weeks after the men's all-around. Benz argued there was no basis for changing the medals standings because there was no guarantee Yang would have won the gold if not for the scoring error. He also argued that "field of play" decisions -- judgment calls by officials during competitions -- were not subject to review by CAS.
Though Hamm had to wait another three weeks for the verdict, he and his family were optimistic after the hearing.
"The Koreans did not protest during the meet, that's just not the way you do it," said Hamm's father, Sandy. "It's just not reasonable to ask a court to go in and change medals based on what might have happened."
Hamm said he learned of the court's decision when he woke up around 6:15 a.m. EDT Thursday and found a message from his agent, Sheryl Shade. He called his girlfriend to tell her the news, then spent the next few hours in a whirlwind of meetings with attorneys and advisers.
Close by the whole time was his gold medal, a medal he now knows he can keep for the rest of his life. He'd left it at his boyhood home in Waukesha, Wis., for safekeeping while the controversy was brewing -- not wanting to risk damaging it just in case he had to give it back.
"It feels like it's mine now. If I were to damage it in any way, it wouldn't be going to anyone else. If I ruin it, it's mine to ruin," he said, laughing. "Now I'll be able to put it in a safe place and leave it there."
The tug-of-war over the medal overshadowed Hamm's performance, one of the greatest comebacks in gymnastics history.
The defending world champion appeared to lose a chance at any medal, let alone the gold, when he botched the landing of his vault and stumbled backward, plopping down on a judges' table. His score of 9.137 dropped him to 12th place with only two events left.
But one by one, the gymnasts above him faltered. And Hamm was spectacular, closing with a pair of 9.837s on the parallel bars and high bar to win the gold.
"There's been a lot of fighting for this medal," Hamm said. "I think it'll mean that much more, that I'll be able to keep it for the rest of my life."