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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | SOCCER

Women Enjoy a Breakthrough

Soccer: Gold-medal victory before huge crowd is seen as a giant stride.

August 04, 1996|MICHAEL WILBON | WASHINGTON POST

ATHENS, Ga. — Tiffany Roberts was in the second grade when she drew a picture of herself in her soccer uniform, a gold medal hanging around her neck. The picture still hangs on the refrigerator in her parents home. But as Roberts got older, and reality began to set in, it was harder and harder to see the picture becoming reality.

Even though she's just 19 and grew up at a time when women's sports were making huge strides, playing before 76,000 people in America just wasn't something she could imagine. Neither, for years and years, could any of her teammates on the U.S. soccer team. Women's sports in this country meant figure skating or gymnastics, but not team sports, not stuff that the men played.

But the work put in by women in the high-profile team sports--softball, soccer and maybe basketball--is culminating in something at these Olympics that may just change how women are perceived in sports, and how they perceive themselves. A 2-1 victory over China before 76,481 at Sanford Stadium earned the U.S. women's team a gold medal and a place in history.

"The only times we've traditionally played before big crowds were when we played before a men's game," Tisha Venturini said. "Playing by ourselves, the biggest crowds we've gotten are maybe 8,000. And that's a good day. It's amazing really, but they all came to see us. We walked into this stadium tonight with all this energy and you just get the feeling you can't be beaten. For the women's softball team, and now the women's soccer team, to win gold medals is really something special because gold at the Olympics brings automatic respect. It's really going to open some eyes."

The smaller picture Thursday night was the game itself. The U.S. women went ahead, 1-0, in the 19th minute of play when Shannon MacMillan got Mia Hamm's rebound off the goaltender's hand and goalpost and put it in. China tied it in the 32th minute when Sun Wen chipped a beauty over Briana Scurry's head. China totally dominated the first 20 minutes of the second half, rarely losing possession for more than a few seconds, but couldn't score. And in the 68th minute Hamm sent a long pass down the right sideline, and Joy Fawcett outran a Chinese midfielder to gain control before sliding a pass across the goalmouth to Tiffeny Milbrett who pushed it past a diving Chinese goalkeeper for the 2-1 lead that would hold up the rest of the way.

If anybody had told you 20 years ago that the U.S. men would fail to get a medal in the the 100-meter dash, but that the U.S. men or women would win a gold medal in Olympic soccer, the person would have been declared certifiably nuts. But the world turns, and stuff happens. Or should we say evolves.

It's an evolution some thought wouldn't get to this stage in their lifetimes. Joan Ryan, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, has been covering women's sports for a long time, the last 13 for the Chronicle. When the U.S. women hugged and fell atop each other on the Sanford Stadium turf at the end of the game, Ryan said she felt a lump in her throat. It was an emotional moment few if any men could fully comprehend.

"This is something I never thought I'd see," she said. "Here we are, standing in this full football stadium in the bastion of the deep south where you've only previously seen women wave pom-poms, and they came to watch women play a game. I can't believe it. They didn't come to see a halftime show, there wasn't a concert afterward. They're not holding pom-pons and they're not wearing short skirts. I never imagined I'd see the day when 76,000 would come to see women play anything."

It's a shame most of you at home couldn't see it, too, except for a few minutes. That was NBC's decision and it didn't sit well with the team and certainly not with the U.S. Soccer Federation officials who complained to NBC heavies earlier in the day about the sparse time this team has gotten on-air during the Olympics.

Hank Steinbrecher, the executive secretary of the U.S.S.F., was trying not to be bitter in the afterglow of a gold medal victory. But asked about NBC's response, he said, "I imagine their response was, 'We spent $435 million, we'll cover what we want.'

But I can tell you there are a lot of angry people out there. We we inundated with phone calls and we simply gave them the NBC phone number. I guess they're still smarting over the FIFA negotiations" that awarded ABC/ESPN the 1998 World Cup broadcast.

On some level, it becomes the same old thing: When are men who control the perception of what's important in sports going to see soccer in general--women's soccer particularly--as important enough to put on television? The women on the U.S. team have been wondering about that all week. As a show of support, the men's team sent a fax to the women before the game that said, according to Steinbrecher, "Godspeed and Good Luck. . . . We're all in this together."

As happy as they were for themselves and their accomplishment, each and every one of the women players who spoke talked about the future, the big picture, what this means for women's soccer, for the credibility of soccer in general. There were as immersed in the significance as in the moment.

"There's no way to describe," Brandi Chastain said, "how huge this is, how incredible this is for women's soccer.

Even an hour after the game, fans stayed in or near their seats in the great football stadium and cheered the women, chanted their names and sought an autograph or picture. And unlike their unappreciative peers in pro basketball or football or baseball, the women obliged every fan they could. Steinbrecher looked at the scene, probably a little surprised, then swept his hand in front of him and pronounced, "This is Americana!"

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