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

This Is One U.S. Team With Eyes on Surprise

September 24, 2000|MIKE PENNER

SYDNEY, Australia — Maurice Greene and Marion Jones had just torn asunder a track Down Under, giving the United States a hyper-swift sweep of the Olympic 100-meter gold medals, and how were many American journalists marking this moment in time?

By huddling around television monitors at various points throughout the Main Press Center, engrossed and transfixed by a penalty-kick shootout between men's soccer teams from Japan and the United States.

Nakata hit the post!

Nakata hit the post!

As soon as Galaxy midfielder Sasha Victorine buried the winner--headline: "Local Bloke Makes Good"--you could rear eruptions of emotion emanating from cubicle to cubicle. It was the sound, ever brief, of jaded journalists losing their jade. For a few fleeting seconds, cynicism had left the building.

No cheering in the press box remains a fundamental tenet of American journalism. (Not so in Australia; dingoism jingoism is big with the tabloids here.) Most U.S. sportswriters do not root for the home team. They root for the home team to get done with business quickly, they root for 24-hour room service, they root for good stories.

The element of surprise never goes out of fashion in newspapering. Maurice Greene and Marion Jones duplicating in Sydney what they had previously accomplished at the 1997 and 1999 world championships is not a surprise. The U.S. basketball team beating New Zealand by 46 points is not a surprise.

Arsi Harju winning the shotput was a surprise, but he was a Finn hurling cannonballs. Even Finnish reporters were less than overwhelmed: "Nice, but it's not quite the javelin, is it?"

Again and again, it all comes back to Lesson One, Journalism 101: What is news?

A man biting a dog is news.

(Unless, I suppose, the biting is done in Korea.)

Ian Thorpe losing is news.

Marion Jones winning the long jump would be news.

The U.S. men's soccer team reaching the semifinals of a major international tournament with Brazil, Italy and Nigeria eliminated is off-the-charts, over-the-top, stop-the-presses news.

Look at that Final Four:

Cameroon, home of the Indomitable Lions, the soccer team first made famous in the 1990 World Cup by King of the Toed Roger Milla.

Chile, the chart-climbing up-and-comer of South American futbol, armed with one of the world's best strikers in Ivan "Bam Bam" Zamorano.

Spain, winner of the 1992 Olympic gold medal and a country that put three of its domestic teams--Real Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona--into the semifinals of Europe's Champions League club championships.

And the boys of Major League Soccer, the Texas League of world soccer, a bunch of supposed second-raters who have to play at home because they couldn't cut in the heavyweight leagues of England, Germany and Italy.

Win, lose or go out on penalties in the next round, the U.S. men's footballers have done their country proud. Unlike, for example, the U.S. baseballers.

The Sydney Olympics had been moving along nicely until Tom Lasorda sent his boys up against Fidel Castro's and, lo and behold, a big-league baseball game broke out. Bench-clearing brawls, head-hunting pitchers, tobacco-dappled insults and invective, Lasorda bellowing and braying in the wind.

Isn't that why we take these two-week summer breaks every four years? Because we're all sick and fed up of the pitch-and-punch counts on "Baseball Tonight?"

If you're scoring at home, Lasorda's Great Goodwill Tour of Oceania didn't make it out of group play. And this was a game Lasorda had dedicated in advance to all the Cuban exiles living in Florida. How many of them looked up from their TV sets around the eighth inning and wondered, "You know, maybe we ought to think this thing through again?"

Ugly Americanism came crashing down on the 2000 Games at the Olympic Baseball Stadium, along with the Americans. Cuba 6, USA 1. Rematch potentially set for the semifinals. Yellow and red cards for that one strongly advised.

The first Olympic women's water polo tournament ended sadly for the Americans, who lost the gold medal in the final 1.3 seconds of regulation. The winning play was more designed for bumper pool than swimming pool--Australia's Yvette Higgins banking the ball off American Coralie Simmons and pocketing it in the net behind goalie Bernice Orwig.

Immediately, U.S. players protested, arguing that Higgins had shot after the buzzer--or, failing that, arguing that Higgins had moved illegally before the shot. One or the other. Take your pick. Please.

Unfortunately for the Yanks, the referee, backed up by international water polo officials, went for option C--none of the above, play stands as is, goal and gold to Australia.

A shame, really.

It would have been interesting to see how the U.S. women's water poloists would have handled those penalty kicks.

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