HOUSTON - There were times when the Olympic gold medal they hung around Paul Hamm's neck in Athens must have felt like an albatross.

A judge's error had tainted the Wisconsin gymnast's historic victory - the first all-around gold for an American male. There were subsequent hearings, investigations, outraged editorials, even calls for Hamm to return the medal. During the controversy, Hamm was not always happy with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Somehow, he had made it to the sport's mountaintop, only to end up in a valley.

Eventually, an international sports court ruled he could keep the medal. But he was stung so deeply by the tawdry affair that few were shocked when Hamm walked away from the sport after those 2004 Olympics, ostensibly to pursue an accounting degree from Ohio State.

Now, four years later, having earned his degree and hearing the siren's call of another Olympics, Hamm is back for the 2008 Visa Championships this weekend. He is the favorite, handstands down, to capture another all-around title and perhaps an additional gold or two.

But he injured his right hand last night just seconds away from completing what would have been a sensational opening night at the Reliant Arena, where the men's artistic competition got under way and will conclude tomorrow. Even so, Hamm finished with the night's best total score for the six events, 93.450. He was first in floor exercise, pommel horse and high bar.

"I was just a couple of skills away from finishing a really good program," said Hamm, holding an icepack on the hand. "I hit the [parallel] bar funny and heard something pop. I'll get it X-rayed in the morning."

If the hand is not broken or too seriously injured, Hamm said he would try to compete in tomorrow night's finale.

"But that's not usually how it happens," he said. "I don't want to risk my health, so if it's more serious, I'll just rest it and get ready for the trials."

The 2008-09 U.S. national team in artistic and rhythmic gymnastics plus the trampoline will be determined here, as will the individual national champions. The women's championships will take place in two weeks in Boston.

According to USA Gymnastics guidelines, last night's competition counted 20 percent toward the point total that will determine the U.S. Olympic team. Tomorrow night will be another 20 percent, then each of the two rounds of the Olympic trials in Philadelphia next month will be worth 30 percent.

But team officials still have considerable discretion in the selection process, and Hamm almost certaiunly would be able to petition successfully for a spot on the Olympic team.

The Olympic teams won't be named until after the trials, June 19-22 at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.

Hamm won the all-around in the last three events he entered after returning to the sport last year with a gold in the floor exercise at the 2007 Visa Championships.

Hamm's twin, Morgan, also took time out for college and is resuming his gymnastics career.

"Morgan and I made the decision to come back together," Hamm said. "Around December 2006, we knew we wanted to come back, so we talked about it with our family. It was a tough decision. . . . But the most amazing thing we could do to end our careers would be to compete [together] in Beijing."

China's Yang Wei is widely considered to be the Olympic favorite in the all-around. Despite Hamm's more than 21/2-year absence and the stiff competition, several of his fellow U.S. gymnasts say he has to be considered a serious threat for another all-around gold at Beijing.

"I really think Paul is the best gymnast in the world," Alexander Artemev said last month. "He's the guy to beat, not Yang Wei. He just hasn't been exposed yet, outside of a few meets."

So far, Hamm, the 25-year-old son of a gymnast mother and a springboard-diver father, has been vague about the forces that pushed him back into the sport he appeared to have abandoned after Athens.

Certainly, his 2004 experience left a bad taste. He had time on his hands after getting his degree last spring, and he almost certainly will be a gold-medal contender in Beijing.

Plus, he and his brother wanted to reverse the U.S. men's post-2004 free fall. Without the Hamms, the Americans finished 13th at the world championships in 2006 - though they did rebound for a fourth-place finish in 2007.

"The 13th place at worlds definitely played a part in our decision to come back," Morgan Hamm said. "We made this decision with our whole family. We talked about what we wanted to do, as opposed to what we had already done. We thought we could bring a little more experience and confidence to the team. ... Once we finished college, we thought it would just be great to come back."

Paul Hamm's competitive comeback has been remarkably seamless, something Sean Golden, a U.S. team member and Camden, N.J., native, attributed to his versatility.

"The thing about Paul is that he's so good in all the [disciplines] and everything else," Golden said last month. "He has style. He has a great personality. He has a real presence. He's very confident. And he's unshakable.

"How many people can fall on vault and then do the high bar of their life and win the Olympic Games?" Golden said.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 and ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.