The U.S. Olympic Committee was sending out mixed signals again to its athletes recently at the Media Summit in New York. On the one hand, officials were privately briefing competitors about proper decorum, about celebrating their victories with restraint and with acknowledgement of delicate international times.
At the same time, Chef de Mission Herman Frazier and fellow officials were brazenly announcing the team would capture 100 medals and dominate events at the Athens Olympics.
“We want to lead the medal count and the gold medal count,” Frazier said. Jim Scherr, executive director of the USOC, insisted that the medal count was “what drives our resources.” As they elaborated their aims in harsh corporate-speak, you could feel the fresh air go right out of the hotel ballroom.
Obviously, each American athlete should do his or her best to beat opponents, to capture a gold medal. But it is counter-productive for officials to announce goals of worldwide sports domination, and to trumpet any success as a result of a superior organization. Frankly, this sort of talk sounds all too much like a Cold War throwback. In case they haven’t noticed, there is no Soviet Union anymore.
Fortunately, the athletes themselves do not appear to be caught up in such nonsense. “One of my least favorite things about the Olympics, is when I watch TV and they say, ‘USA has just won 70 gold medals, five bronze, 10 silver . . . Russia and Germany follow,’” Mia Hamm said. “I want you to know that when we go out to play, we go out to win. But if we don’t win, I feel the same about my team and my opponent . . . The point of the Olympics is about the spirit of competition, and the overwhelming adversity that a lot of these athletes have gotten over to get where they are.”
Hamm plans to retire from international play after Athens. She needs to stick around the Olympics in some fashion, just to remind all these silly men what the Games are supposed to be about.
Q: Years back, there use to be real dominant sprinters in the 100 meters, such as Carl Lewis and Donovan Bailey. They were consistent, notching records and being the prime candidates for a top-podium finish. Nowadays, it is difficult to predict who will win.
Maurice Greene was once dominant but now he’s unable to stand his ground as champ. Then there’s Tim Montgomery. He came out of nowhere to break the world record, then disappeared. His form has deteriorated drastically.
What’s with the current sprinters anyway? What do you think about the new crop of 200 and 400 runners? Anyone who will ever match up to Michael Johnson?
-- Charmaine Ooi, Penang, Malaysia
A. You may be romanticizing the past a bit, Charmaine. While Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson were truly transcendent sprinters, they were the exceptions more than the rule. Donovan Bailey’s reign was not that long. Over the past six years (minus time off for having a baby), Marion Jones has been every bit as much the champion as those predecessors.
You are right, though, about the current unpredictability in the men’s sprinting events. Greene has been inconsistent. Montgomery has been worse than mediocre in recent meets. Jones trains alongside Montgomery, shares the same coach and insists he will come around, that he always starts slowly. But Montgomery needs to get moving soon. If you’re looking for future greatness, keep an eye on Usain Bolt, the 17-year-old Jamaican, who has managed a 19.93 at 200 meters and may become the next sprinting king.
Q. What has happened to American track and field? It seems to me we are not developing or discovering new talent. Maybe the world has caught up to us, but maybe our work ethic is not where it should be. Are our track and field athletes hungry?
-- D Erler, Kansas City, Mo.
A. I don’t see much of a falloff in the sprints or field events. Our long jumpers and pole vaulters are better than they’ve been in some time. That infamous medal count should be more than respectable in Athens. Perhaps you’re referring to the middle and long distances, which have been something of a disaster for Americans for several years now. The Africans and Europeans are certainly stronger than us in those events, and that may have something to do with discipline, hunger and desire. Still, track and field is an international sport. It is far more popular as a spectator sport in Europe, and you’ll just have to get used to a few U.S. defeats along the way.
Q. Will we ever see a genuine U.S. “dream” baseball team at the Olympics?
-- Carlos Adan-Pol, Miami
A. Major League Baseball is not likely to take a break for a couple weeks in midseason. Instead, the proposed World Cup of Baseball is a viable alternative. It could attract the top stars from all countries, once they understand the potential endorsement money. As you know, the U.S. baseball team fielded minor leaguers and failed to qualify for Athens, which doesn’t help the sport’s argument that it should remain an Olympic event. Roger Clemens had hoped to pitch for the U.S. team at the Summer Games, but was forced to come out of retirement and become the Astros’ ace.
Q. Can the U.S. men’s volleyball team improve on their performance from four years ago? They were awful in Sydney.
-- Sean Farquhar, Christchurch, New Zealand
A. Signs are not good. The men’s team is ranked only sixth in the world, behind Brazil, Italy, Serbia and Montenegro, France and Russia. You’re better off watching the American women, who are ranked second and not far behind China. Better yet, watch women’s beach volleyball, never an unpleasant assignment, if you seek a U.S. gold.
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