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Their Olympic bronze is worth its weight in gold

August 12, 2008 | 10:09 am

Justin Spring, right, and Jonathan Horton celebrate during the men's team final of the artistic gymnastics event at the National Indoor Stadium on Tuesday.

BEIJING -- Men's gymnastics in the United States no longer is all about the Hamm brothers.

It's about the free-spirited impishness of Jonathan Horton, who winks and promises to add a "secret" skill when he does his high-bar routine in the men's event finals.

It is about Justin Spring admitting that he didn't think he belonged as one of the floor exercise performers for the U.S. in team finals.

It's about Kevin Tan bowing his head as teammates praise his leadership skills and willingness to tell them (Horton and Spring, that's you) to shut up, calm down and concentrate.

And it is about Raj Bhavsar and Alexander Artemev publicly remaining gracious when they were chosen as alternates -- but privately working like demons for no apparent reason other than to cheer on a Hamm-led team. And in the end, unexpectedly replacing the Hamms in competition with great spirit and gritty performances.

Rumor has it that some Michael Phelps guy is winning an occasional gold medal in the pool. And the U.S. men's basketball team draws clusters of viewers around the Media Press Center televisions even when it blows away Angola.

But one of my best Olympic moments will be watching this men's gymnastics team win a bronze medal behind China and Japan -- against everyone's expectations but their own.

The battle for women's team gold between China's tiny youngsters and America's collection of teenagers and veterans will be a television bonanza for NBC. But even if the U.S. women win team gold, it won't be any better than the men's team bronze.

When Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin become opponents rather than teammates and attack each piece equipment for individual all-around glory (and likely some sweet financial gains), it will be no more enthralling than watching a bunch of guys that most of you don't know win a third-place medal.

These guys won't be big stars for more than today and possibly tomorrow.

The inevitable post-Olympic tour will showcase Johnson, Liukin, Alicia Sacramone -- and that anonymous collection of good-natured extras who were the U.S. men's team.

But having gotten to know Horton, Spring, Tan, Artemev, Bhavsar, Joey Hagerty and David Durante (the alternate's alternate, the one guy left sitting in the stands and weeping for his guys), I have to say that they deserved this.

They have offered their time, and always willingly, to reporters. They told their stories when asked, listened as we all praised the Hamms and predicted disaster when the Hamms got hurt.

Then they pointed to us media in the stands -- playfully, and while laughing -- to say, "We did it."

Yep, they did. They deserve their "Today Show" moment. And when Spring was asking anybody who walked by if they wanted to touch his medal, it was hard to say no.

It was a touching kind of moment.

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Justin Spring, right, and Jonathan Horton celebrate during the men's team final of the artistic gymnastics event at the National Indoor Stadium on Tuesday. Credit: Axel Schmidt / AFP/Getty Images