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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | Inside the Olympics
: The Day in Sydney

It's 3 Down, 109 to Go for Slumping Softballers

September 21, 2000|MIKE PENNER

SYDNEY, Australia — Since all the best alarmist headlines in the tabloids here are usually reserved for Australian swimming and basketball failures, I thought it only fair to give an impending American disaster equal time this morning:

Down Under, Underhanders Down For The Count

U.S. softball enthusiasts, it is now officially time to commence panicking in the streets. On your mark, get set . . .

OK, so it really isn't as dire as all that. In Olympic softball, which has modeled its playoff format on the NHL's, half the field will advance after the completion of round-robin play. That's four of eight teams, which means the Americans can lose to Japan and China and Australia, which they've already done, and still qualify for the semifinals provided they finish ahead of Italy, New Zealand, Canada and Cuba.

Still, back-to-back-to-back losses by the great American softball juggernaut have grabbed everyone's attention in Sydney. Well, everyone except the Aussies, who continue to sulk over "Madame Butterfly" Susie O'Neill getting her wings clipped in the 200 fly by "unheralded American Misty Hyman," as the Daily Telegraph pouted.

And, all right, the groundskeeping crew at the Blacktown Softball Center, which forgot to override the field's automatic watering system and allowed pop-up sprinklers to douse the Americans as they ran out to take their positions in the last inning of a 14-inning, 2-0 loss to China.

A few hours later, the United States took the field against Australia, took a 1-0 lead in the top of the 13th inning and then coughed it up on a two-run home run by Peta Edebone in the bottom of the 13th.

That's three defeats in a row for a team that had previously won 112 in a row. That's the American softballers for you. So streaky. Up one day, and the following 111, then down the next.

In other Olympic news, the U.S. women's soccer team clinched its second consecutive gold medal Wednesday.

Semifinals set for Sunday.

In a veritable soccer shocker, Norway upset China, 2-1, in the final match of group play, knocking the Chinese out of the tournament and virtually handing the 2000 championship to the 1996 champions. Sometimes it is over before it's over.

The Americans match up infinitely better with the slower, more physical Norwegians than the swift, relentless Chinese. In group play, Team USA scuffled to a 1-1 draw with China but toyed with Norway--held to a 2-0 victory only because Tiffeny Milbrett missed a wide-open net and hit the post three times.

A rematch in the gold-medal match, which is likely, should be more of the same. Which has to be great news for Mia Hamm, who can finally get some sleep now that she no longer has to count swarming Chinese defenders in her nightmares. Maybe now she'll get some rest from the infernal inquisition from the ever-demanding U.S. soccer media: Why can't Mia score against China?

Hey, neither could the U.S. softballers.

And you have to like April Heinrichs' blunt honesty when the U.S. coach was given the news of China's elimination. Most of her colleagues would have kept the upper lip stiff and grunted something about how every team left in the tournament is a serious threat and wouldn't wouldn't be there if they weren't top quality, blah, blah, blah. Heinrichs beamed and said she'd head straight for the eastern Australian shoreline, waving the Chinese team plane goodbye as it sails into the clouds for home.

I wonder if the Chinese soccer players bumped into Marie-Jose Perec at the Qantas counter at Sydney Airport. "PEREC FLEES" read the Morning Herald's front-page banner headline, accompanied by a photo of the French 400-meter runner sprinting to her gate, handbags over one shoulder, boarding pass in her left hand.

Perec, who doubled as women's 200- and 400-meter champion in Atlanta, has been the Greta Garbo of the Sydney Games, holing up in her hotel room, failing to show for a French track and field news conference, informing readers of her Web site that she had been held "hostage" by the demands of the out-of-control international track media.

This seemed a bit odd, considering most members of the international track media are still busy unpacking their decimal points and synchronizing their stopwatches.

Late Wednesday night, with most of the nation distracted by O'Neill's watery disappointment, Perec made a run for the border, catching a flight to Melbourne for a connection to Singapore, supposedly on her way to London.

Perec's agent told French TV that the sprinter had been "threatened" in her hotel room and felt she needed to leave the country for her personal safety.

Perec's sudden exit comes on the heels of withdrawals by men's world champion shot putter C.J. Hunter, women's world champion long jumper Niurka Montalvo, two-time women's world 1,500-meter silver medalist Regina Jacobs and two-time Olympic 200-meter silver medalist Frankie Fredericks and Inger Miller's decision to pull out of the women's 100.

Good thing track and field finally begins Friday.

Another 24 hours and the meet would be down to Marion Jones sprinting, Marion Jones long jumping and Marion Jones handing off the relay baton to Marion Jones.

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