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A World of Difference

Has the U.S. flopped or the rest of the planet simply caught up? Whatever the answer, look forward to more of the same

September 27, 2006|Chuck Culpepper | Times Staff Writer

As We the People of the United States squirm into our new role as a chronic international sports also-ran, as we realize we can't rule golf or basketball or tennis or much of anything besides halfpipe snowboarding, we can always find a bright side.

We can learn some world geography.

The rest of the world has long painted us as a bunch of geography blockheads, and scholarly studies have long revealed us as a bunch of geography blockheads, but recurring defeat can familiarize us with all those other countries across the vast oceans.

If we dare look over there or down there at our main nemeses, we'll see the bulk of them living in a relative peace they once lacked.

They have the means and the time and a globalized world in which to perfect the arts of leisure and increase the United States' number of capable rivals.

Europe spent the midsection of last century mending from war but no longer scraps among itself. Instead, it has formed its unprecedented 25-nation, 457-million person European Union -- replete with national anthem, and really, who knew? -- and has started jabbing the U.S. with its Greeces and its Belgiums, not to mention its dynastic Ryder Cup team.

Russia's 142 million souls and tennis/basketball whizzes rebounded from late-1990s economic strife with varying worry depending on which economist you read. Argentina's 39 million -- two dozen of whom beat the U.S. twice at basketball this decade -- are rebounding from economic crisis, according to reports out this week. Australia? Well, Australia's mere 19 million always did outdo themselves athletically, and you could make a case they lifted the manhole cover on this whole American hell 23 years ago this week in Rhode Island, when they interrupted a 132-year American hold on the America's Cup, and their prime minister, Bob Hawke, declared, "Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum."

The American 2006, naturally, has stoked our national pastime of adept navel-gazing.

That'll happen after another drubbing in the Ryder Cup, mere bronze medals in the basketball world championships from the men (a trend, anymore) and the women (for the first time since 1994 in Olympics or world championships), the worst American tennis year in the Open era, a World Cup flop, a world baseball flop and a Winter Olympics with a running theme of American ineptitude.

But it might be them as much as us.

In golf, the U.S. has lost four of the last five Ryder Cups and would've lost the other if not for a Boston miracle featuring rude home fans. "There's nothing sweeter than beating the Americans," Ryder Cup wunderkind Sergio Garcia said Sunday, and it sounded rather quaint.

How does the routine remain sweet?

The men's top 50 does feature a front-running 18 Americans (to 14 Europeans), but the top 20 contains only five (to eight Europeans). Among women, South Korea ties the U.S. with 15 women among the top 50. U.S. men have won 20 of 28 major tournaments in the 2000s, but 12 of those belong to Tiger Woods, while U.S. women have gone six for 28.

Golf always did span the globe; now it's only truer. Analyzing defeat, Woods wished the U.S. had more 25-ish up-and-comers.

Like the Europeans do.

You can measure the shifts in basketball self-images through the words of various Americans plus one Pepe Sanchez, an Argentine who has played for Temple University and as a backdrop in the NBA.

In September 2002, when Argentina beat the U.S., 87-80, at the world championships in Indianapolis, the U.S. international record with NBA players dipped to 58-1. Paul Pierce said, "I'm embarrassed." Baron Davis said, "I'm embarrassed." Reggie Miller said, "It's embarrassing."

Sanchez said, "We are human beings and we dream.... As the game unfolded, we said, 'Wow, we could really do this.' "

In August 2004, when Argentina beat the U.S., 89-81, in an Olympic semifinal in Athens, Allen Iverson said, "We fought as hard as we could." Coach Larry Brown said, "I'm proud of my team."

And standing around Sanchez deepened the feeling of a new paradigm as he referred to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and said, "Those guys are like a myth. These guys are players. There's no fear of them.... It's upsetting to keep hearing that these guys need to adjust to the rules and the international game is so different for them. Really? A guy misses a jump shot from three, wide open. What rule is that? They tried to play zone against us. We hit two threes, they had to stop playing zone. That's not trouble with a rule."

Self-images had altered.

By early this month, when Greece beat the U.S., 101-95, in a world championships semifinal, embarrassment and surprise mostly had waned, even if Athenians did dance some. Besides, Greece's 10 million people themselves have upgraded their sports possibilities of late, winning the coveted Euro 2004 soccer crown, winning the European basketball championship and reaping the investments of an Olympics.

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