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Enough Bela-Aching--Here Come Clive's Kids

September 20, 2000|MIKE PENNER


Oh, sorry.

Wrong Olympics.

Unfortunately for Bela Karolyi--but not nearly as unfortunate as it was for NBC--this time there was no wounded gymnast to carry to the medal podium. This was partly because the American women's gymnastics team failed to earn a spot on the medal podium . . . and mainly because no American gymnast was in the mood to take a flying vault into Bela's sweaty arms after an acrimonious fourth-place finish.

Bela, as you may have heard from Bela, was supposed to have ridden to the rescue of the U.S. women's gymnastics program like some Transylvanian Teddy Roosevelt, taking the rubble of last year's sixth-place meltdown at the world championships and molding his "leetle ones" into an Olympic medalist.

It was a lot to ask, particularly if you tuned in to last month's U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials and watched in horror as the U.S. Olympic diving trials broke out. Outside Boston's FleetCenter, the weather was hot and humid, but inside, it was raining gymnasts. Our best chance for a medal in Sydney, it appeared, would be the off-balance beam.

So Bela had something less than a Magnificent Seven to work with here, and pushed them only as far as a less-than-magnificent fourth. After the fall, Bela blamed his 2000 team for lacking the "fight or the will or the work ethic" of the 1996 gold medalists.

The 2000 team fired back, blasting Bela for his lineup selection, his negative nit-picking during practice, his incorrigible addiction to the spotlight. It was quite a display by the U.S. gymnasts. If only they were half as spunky on the exercise mat.

Bela and Tom Lasorda have loomed as twin towering American hulks over the first quarter of the Sydney Games--two coaches who are bigger than their athletes, bigger than their sports. This is going over better with the U.S. baseball team than the U.S. women's gymnastics team, but that's only because the baseball team is 3-0.

Until Cuba was upset by the Netherlands today, the Olympic baseball competition had been fairly dull, proving that some things play in Australia just as they do in the States.

But the Australian baseball writers, God bless 'em. You can't blame them for being cricket writers in non-Olympic months, but you have to love their plucky attempts at traditional Yankee baseball hackdom.

From the Daily Telegraph: "Sydney left-armer Brad Thomas looked nervous on the mound and gave up six hits in 3.2 innings before another 'leftie', Craig Anderson, relieved and did well in 4.1 innings to concede a solitary hit."

From the Sydney Morning Herald: "[Korean pitcher Chung] Min-tae again erred by giving Reeves a walk to first, thus progressing Brett Roneberg over home plate."

To avoid nodding off during the U.S.-Netherlands baseball game, I flipped on the television monitor at my press box seat and tuned into the U.S.-Kuwait men's soccer match. The Australian fellow next to me tuned his monitor to the Italy-Nigeria men's soccer match. This a great way to watch a baseball game, we found. Nice header by Danny Califf. Nice hair dye by Landon Donovan.

And get this: The American footballers not only defeated Kuwait, 3-1, and not only qualified for the Olympic quarterfinals for the first time in history, they also finished first in their group.

First place in soccer--ahead of Cameroon and the Czech Republic, which is pretty much the equivalent of Cameroon and the Czech Republic finishing ahead of the United States in baseball.

This is a wonderful development for the men's soccer liberation movement in America. Until these Olympics, soccer in the States was a bit like Secret deodorant: Strong enough for a man, but played by women. From the perspective of U.S. men's national Coach Bruce Arena, it was starting to get annoying, being asked after every match if the U.S. men could beat the U.S. women.

Now, the Olympic men's team, coached in attacking style by Clive Charles, has a golden--OK, cool down, bronzed--opportunity to stake a claim and raise a banner. If the Americans face South Africa or Japan in the quarters, they could be looking at the Final Four. Put your ear to the earth; that sound is a groundswelling. A few more headers like Califf's and we could well have a Miracle on Sod on our hands.

Stranger things have happened, as Eric "Eagle" Moussambani, the Equatorial Guinean swimmer who could barely swim, has discovered. One day after setting an Olympic record for the slowest time in the 100-meter freestyle dog paddle, Moussambani has become a star in Sydney.

The stands were crowded with onlookers as Moussambani tried a few practice laps today--in a "Fastskin" bodysuit given him by Speedo, which likes the publicity Eric the Eagle can give the company, but stopped short of renaming itself Sluggo.

Unlike, say, Ian Thorpe, Moussambani walked across the pool deck and received a challenge from a guy in the stands to race. Moussambani, a nice young man, politely declined.

Moussambani said his goal is to train for the 2004 Games with "a good coach" and win a medal. Of course. The American gymnasts must have told him: It's always the coach's fault.

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