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COMMENTARY

It's Shaping Up Like an Olympic Year to Forget

May 30, 2004|Tim Dahlberg | Associated Press

The Dream Team doesn't look so dreamy anymore. A top rower decided he was too scared to go to Athens, and the U.S. baseball team wasn't good enough to go.

Sprinter Kelli White has already been banned from the Olympics, and the drug police are in full pursuit of Marion Jones and other American track stars.

Suddenly, terrorism isn't the only thing U.S. Olympic officials have to worry about at the Athens Games. The way things are going, this might be America's summer of discontent.

Remember that goal the U.S. Olympic Committee set of winning 100 medals?

Forget it.

Once implausible, it's now merely laughable.

Between nerves, ineptitude and the steroid scare, the U.S. Olympic effort is in danger of imploding just a few months before the games begin.

Scratch the gold medal won by the U.S. baseball team in Sydney four years ago. The team didn't even make it out of a qualifying round in Mexico this time.

Neither did the American soccer team, though the synchronized swimmers are supposed to be pretty good this year -- assuming no one swallows too much water.

Jones won five medals in Sydney for the United States -- three of them gold -- but the BALCO steroids scandal might snare her and 100-meter world-record holder Tim Montgomery long before they board a plane for Greece.

Even the Dream Team isn't guaranteed gold -- or any other medal for that matter. Anyone who watched the United States lose three times at home during the world championships two years ago can attest to that.

The way NBA players are dropping off the team, just filling the roster might be an Olympian task all by itself.

Tracy McGrady is the latest Dream Team casualty, a move that cost the team one of its best all-around offensive talents and a player coaches hoped to use as the primary defender against opponents' best players.

McGrady joins a growing list of stars who opted out or said don't bother sending an invite. They include Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Elton Brand and Kenyon Martin.

Jermaine O'Neal might join them on the sidelines, although he's waiting until the playoffs are over to make a decision. If his thinking from a few months ago is any indication, don't look for him in a place where he doesn't feel safe.

"It definitely sits on your mind," O'Neal said. "If you wanted to send a message to the world, what better place is there to do it?"

That question was apparently also on the mind of rower Xeno Muller, a two-time Swiss Olympic medalist who was favored to make the U.S. team in singles sculls.

Last week, Muller was getting ready to paddle his boat at the U.S. rowing trials on Lake Mercer in New Jersey. Instead, he paddled to shore five minutes before the race and said he wasn't going.

"When you have three children and a wife and you leave them, then leave them again to go overseas, and you see somebody's head getting cut off ... you start having clouds in your head for why you want to proceed like this, with all the responsibility about traveling, leaving the family, et cetera," Muller said.

You wouldn't expect U.S. boxers to be nervous, but even they are.

Indeed, those heading the American delegation of more than 500 athletes have plenty to worry about. This won't be anything like it was four years ago, when Sydney welcomed Americans with open arms and athletes responded by bringing home 97 medals.

It won't be warm and fuzzy in Athens. The threat of terror hangs over the city like summer smog, and fans will take every opportunity they get to boo, whistle and cheer against Americans.

Even those who win will be regarded by most of the world as cheaters.

As pole vaulter Stacy Dragila put it, "You have to realize that people hate Americans."

Combine that with a team that looks increasingly shaky from the basketball court to the boxing arena, and may be missing its biggest stars from track and field, and the picture looks bleak.

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