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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

These Women Are Winners Too

Soccer: U.S. defeats China for gold medal, but it's just not gymnastics.

August 02, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATHENS, Ga. — They lacked the clout, heft and instinctive nose for the television camera of a Bela Karolyi, but there they were, two medical staffers for the U.S. women's soccer team, carrying another injured gold medalist out to the middle of another victory celebration.

Moments earlier, Mia Hamm, the best player on the best women's soccer team in the world, had been brought by a stretcher to the sideline, where she watched the final seconds of the United States' 2-1 Olympic gold-medal triumph over China tick down Thursday night.

It was another sprained ankle, one that had been taped up and shoved into a soccer boot and coaxed into another 90-minute grind on the Sanford Stadium field.

It held up long enough for Hamm to contribute to both U.S. goals, including the clinical through-pass that set up the game-winner in the 68th minute, but it simply gave way in the waning moments, once the victory was assured.

From Hamm's vantage point, in the incline position, she took in the incredible scene--76,481 spectators, announced as the largest crowd to ever witness a women's sporting event, rising to their feet, launching into the raucous "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chant supposedly reserved for the prime-time sports, such as gymnastics and swimming.

Hamm had to get out there, had to join the delirious dogpile of American teammates cavorting at midfield. So two members of the U.S. medical staff, Dr. Mark Adams and trainer Patty Marchak, lifted Hamm off her feet and gave her the hero's ride to the center circle.

"Listen to them," Hamm kept saying after she limped off the field into a crush of reporters waiting for her in the mixed zone.

"I mean, listen to this crowd.

"This . . . this is perfect."

Well, almost.

Perfect would have been if NBC, the network dedicated to bringing the best in American female athletics into your home, night after night, had televised portions of this tournament, instead of virtually ignoring the climb of this team to the championship of the first Olympic women's soccer gold medal.

NBC drafted onto Thursday night's final, barely, by offering prime-time viewers a handful of minutes of live action, followed by a most generous team interview--remote with Bob Costas--once the medals were awarded.

"NBC still doesn't get it," said an angry Hank Steinbrecher, executive director for U.S. Soccer. "They're going to try to hold back the hands of the clock as long as they can. They ought to get in tune with what's happening in the real world."

Before these Olympics, the largest crowd to have witnessed a women's sporting event was believed to have been the 1991 women's World Cup final, also won by the United States, in Guanzhou, China. Attendance for that game was an announced 65,000.

The previous high for a U.S. women's soccer game played on American soil was 7,083, for a game against Norway in RFK Stadium in 1995.

Thursday's crowd bettered that total tenfold.

Of course, many in attendance were there, no doubt, because it was the only way they could watch this game.

"There are worldwide implications here," U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco said. "Seventy-six thousand fans shows there's incredible interest in the women's game. This is something that should be taken very seriously. The women's sport is ready to explode.

"These were paying fans too. I'm just glad we could give them a good show and bring back the gold medal."

It was a game worthy of the turnstile count--tied, 1-1, at halftime and into the 68th minute before Hamm and right fullback Joy Fawcett teamed on a give-and-go that produced the game winner.

Fawcett began the play by breaking up a Chinese pass down the right wing, carrying the ball to midfield and dishing to Hamm. Fawcett never stopped running, overlapping past Hamm toward the Chinese penalty area, and Hamm sprung her with a expertly delivered through ball.

Fawcett drew one defender toward her and then crossed the ball through the box, past China's lunging goalkeeper Gao Hong and all the way to a waiting Tiffeny Milbrett, who had beaten Wang Liping to the far post.

Milbrett had an easy putaway and Sanford Stadium sounded as if the Georgia Bulldogs had just clinched the Southeastern Conference title.

Hamm also played a key part in the first goal of the game, scored by Shannon MacMillan in the 19th minute.

The buildup began on the left wing, with Kristine Lilly chasing down a ball near the touchline and quickly crossing back through the top of the penalty area. Hamm barreled in to parry the ball with her right foot, driving a shot that sent Gao diving to her right to palm the ball away.

But the ball caromed hard off the left post and bounded back to MacMillan for a rebound goal and a 1-0 U.S. lead.

China equalized in the 32nd minute by departing momentarily from its precision short passing game and lobbing a long ball into the middle of the American defense.

U.S. sweeper Carla Overbeck was caught pushing up on the play and the ball sailed over her head, bouncing clear to Chinese forward Sun Wen, streaking in from the left side.

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