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The Inside Track | Mike Penner / SOUND AND VISION

Wide World of Sports Overwhelms the U.S.

November 12, 2003|Mike Penner

Are they dancing in the streets of Amsterdam? Overturning bicycles in Eindhoven? Lighting bong fires inside coffee shops in Rotterdam?

The Netherlands is sending its baseball team to the 2004 Olympics.

The United States is not.

The 21st century is upon us, whether we like it or not, and NBC, for one, must be longing for the good old days, back around, say, 1999, when the United States could still compete.

NBC will televise the 2004 Olympics, primarily because it's too late to back out. Talk about your potential ratings hound.

Remember track and field? As recently as the 2000 Games in Sydney, the United States boasted some of the swiftest and strongest athletes in the world. At least that's what the packaging said. It turns out we simply had the swiftest doctors and the strongest pharmacies.

"Go USA!" has been replaced by "More THG!" BALCO has replaced Wheaties as the breakfast of champions. Think back to Sydney and the U.S. relay team's outrageous victory celebration that featured really bad impersonations of "The Rock," and the American flag used as a Halloween costume. A disgrace, Americans fumed back home. An embarrassment, they said.

In retrospect, those were the salad days.

How many members of the 2000 U.S. track team will make it to Athens, once the lab results and subpoenas stop flying? Will we even field a track team in Athens? And if we do, which events can we possibly win? The 400-meter masking agent relay? The 110-meter hypodermically enhanced high hurdles?

Remember basketball? We invented the sport. We dominated the sport. Even with our amateurs, give or take some oily refereeing in '72, until we didn't in 1988, and so we brought on the NBA Dream Team, and all was right again with the world. Until 2002, when we played host to the world championships and our NBA all-stars finished sixth behind Yugoslavia, Argentina, Germany, New Zealand and Spain.

Women's soccer? We pretty much invented that too. We won two of the first three Women's World Cups, then lost the 2000 Olympic gold medal to Norway, then couldn't even reach the finals -- at home -- in the 2003 World Cup.

Germany beat us in the semifinals. Sweden took second. We blamed it all on letting Germans and Swedes play in our women's pro soccer league. Our solution? We shut down our women's pro soccer league.

Baseball is another sport we invented. A pastime that peers into the American soul, poets have told us. As much a part of the American experience as hot dogs, apple pies and Chevrolet, advertisers have told us.

Have you checked the scoreboard lately? Hot dogs can kill you. Apple pie has turned us into a nation of roly-poly Michelin men and women. Chevrolet finds itself swamped by an armada of Toyotas, Nissans, Volvos, Audis and Hondas.

And the United States baseball team goes down to Panama, loses to Mexico and fails to qualify for the Olympics.

Once an international sports superpower, we are now over and out overseas. We lost the Ryder Cup. We lost the Solheim Cup. We lost in the first round of the Davis Cup. We sat on the dock and watched landlocked Switzerland out-sail New Zealand for the America's Cup. Our cups runneth empty.

In earlier times, we would have responded to the Olympic baseball debacle by rolling up sleeves and getting back to work and teaching better cutoff throws. But this is the new America. We are smarter than we used to be and know it's much easier to assign blame elsewhere, change the rules when they don't work for us and, if that doesn't work, send in the spin doctors.

There must be something wrong with the Olympic qualifying process if the U.S. can't get out of the regional quarterfinals, so let's build another Dream Team. That ought to do it. Can you imagine Barry Bonds turned loose in Athens? He'd be pummeling Dutch pitchers and scaring off Greek sportswriters in Herculean order.

Unfortunately, Bud Selig, the great balloon deflator, quashed that groundswell in the top of the first, reminding everyone that baseball isn't hockey (right -- we lost that gold medal to Canada in Salt Lake City last year) and the major leagues aren't going to shut down their pennant races every four years just because our minor leaguers couldn't get the job done against Mexico.

After that, Selig's right-hand man, Sandy Alderson, rode to the rescue with some world-class spin, telling Associated Press that what happened in Panama wasn't "a setback for U.S. baseball. I think it's a validation of the internationalization of the game."

There you have it. Now we know our place in the new sporting world order. We have become England, maker of such popular games as soccer, tennis and cricket and no longer the master of any. We gave the world baseball and basketball, and now we're watching the world take baseball and basketball and run laps around us.

But, we still have pro football and NASCAR. Also known as America's most popular television sports. And now we know why: They are the last two sports on earth Americans dominate, largely because the rest of the world has looked them over and decided, uh-uh, not for us, we prefer Grand Prix and the Champions League.

It's good some sports don't translate. The Australians have their Aussie rules football, we have our Yankee rules football. The rest of the world keeps out, we keep racking up our mythical "world" championships, the rest of the world winks, everybody's happy.

There's something reassuring in the knowledge that Croatia and Argentina will never hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But we'd better not make too much noise about the World Series. If Cuba and Japan and Korea and the Netherlands ever find out about it, the Florida Marlins could be in big trouble.

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