Saturday, August 28, 2004

That Olympics Thing...

Generally speaking, I don't show my ignorance by branching into other sports. More than that, given how short my off-duty time has been this summer, I usually just don't have the time for anything other than baseball.

So I figured I'd blow off the Olympics again this year. I completely ignored Sydney four years ago (aside from the cute Maori runner they had light the Olympic flame, I can't remember a damn thing about the Games that year. Not quite true. When I search the memory, I get the name of an anorexic-looking girl called Strugg (or something like that) with a bad foot. But I don't have any idea what she did on that bad foot to get my attention.) I can't even remember where the Winter Olympics were in 2002 (ed. note: was that Salt Lake City? I remember something about hookers).

But La Chiquita is Greek, and her family members have been emailing her week-by-week updates on Athens' preparation for these Games, so I wound up watching the first weekend. It's a slippery slope.

You get fascinated by the gymnasts, and the pretty people doing goofy strokes in the pool (what, for exaple, is the practical purpose of the breast stroke?). Then something happens, like the Paul Hamm gold medal. Suddenly, you're intrigued and you wind up following the Olympics, common sense be damned.

Anyway, there have been some good stories this Games -- my personal favorites have been the hurdlers, Fani Halkia winning a surprise gold in front of her home crowd, and Felix "Super" Sanchez winning the Dominican Republic's first ever gold medal. The Iranian weightlifter was pretty cool, too.

[While I was writing this, I just saw the emblematic moment of the Mets' season: Cliff Floyd being picked off of second base to stimy a two-on, one out threat. Mets still lead, 2-1.]

But those stories get balanced off by the typical BS that turns me off about the Olympics. Testing for enhancers, and subsequent disqualifications. Ruling controversies like they had in swimming, and, most ironically, with the same Mr. Hamm that really got Olympic interest going.

Two of the worst stories of Athens came to a conclusion Friday, as Marion Jones failed to medal in both of her events, and the US basketball team was eliminated from gold medal competition.

Jones, the Nike-appointed face of the US Olympic effort, spent the lead-up to these Games getting embroiled in the BALCO scandal, then spent the Olympic qualifiers underperforming. She only qualified in one of the three events for which she won gold in Sydney -- the long jump. At the last minute, she was added to one of the US relay teams.

Jones underperformed in the long jump, coming in sixth, and fumbled her hand-off in the relay, disqualifying her team.

But at least her failure is overshadowed by the "Nightmare Team" the American basketballers that were beaten by Puerto Rico and Lithuania in the preliminary round, and fell to Argentina on Friday to put them in the Bronze medal game.

The US Basketball Team was getting slammed since before the games began, going back to a loss to Italy in the pre-Olympic warmups. People (including some on the team) criticized a number of NBA stars for begging out of the games. Some criticized the players that were selected as replacements for those stars, noting that the process seemed better geared toward promoting the NBA than toward winning Olympic gold.

Now, after arguably the US's worst basketball performance in Olympic history, the pros in Athens are getting beat like piƱatas. In defense of the Nightmare Team, Jason Whitlock (one of the folks hoping to inherit the mantle of the late Ralph Wiley) proclaims that the criticism of the Nightmare Team is spurred by racism:

This team is being discussed unfairly in the media and being treated unfairly by American sports fans. There's a lot of convenient denial going on. No one wants to deal with the truth because they're having too much fun blasting a bunch of black millionaires for being lazy, unpatriotic and stupid. With the exception of adding the word "millionaires," this is a very familiar tune.

It's just more denial. The truth -- and what needs to be discussed -- is that African-American basketball players no longer have a lock on the game. The rest of the world has caught up, at warp speed. The game has been exported and redefined in superior fashion.

There might be something to Whitlock's point about the world game evolving, but does anyone really believe that the U.S. team, had it been composed of the country's best basketball talent, couldn't beat these opponents? Unlike the Canada/Hockey example Whitlock uses, there isn't a single dominant team in this game that have supplanted the U.S., competitively -- this basketball team lost to four different international squads. Does Whitlock really mean to say that the whole world caught up to us in basketball, all at once?

This basketball team is a disappointment. It is an All-Star team, and has been treated as such by the players -- I think I'll skip the Olympics this year, get some rest during the break. Like an All-Star team, it doesn't look like anyone thought about how these parts would fit together. NBA rookies LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are on the squad because they're "The Future of the NBA", not because they help the team win. Other players seemed to have been picked because they were the next guy on the list, rather than for their actual skills.

The League wanted to use the Olympic stage to showcase its stars. It never considered that not all publicity is good publicity. Stock in LeBron and Carmelo is trading low today, because of this team's performance. Anthony's reputation, in particular, has been damaged because of reports of whining about playing time and clashing with coach Larry Brown.

This is the guy the league is marketing as the "next Larry Bird", to complement James's "next Magic Johnson". Now the two come away looking like the next Vince Carter and the next Penny Hardaway, more of the hype overkill for which the NBA has become famous.

And that's the thing: I think the anger at the Nightmare Team is more directed toward the NBA than toward any of the individual participants. Iverson's taken some heat because he's the team captain, and with his tatoos and cornrows he makes for a colorful picture to put on the back page when the U.S. loses. But he's played in an impossible position -- broken thumb, broken, ill-prepared team. I think most fans understand that. Usually the coach would be to blame when a team fails to gel like this one has, but Larry Brown is still protected by the afterglow of the Piston's NBA championship. So who's left to blame? The Team, in an abstract sense, as a bunch of ball-hogging millionaires; and the League, as in David Stern, who picked out this team to send to Athens.

When Whitlock complains about people "rooting against the U.S. basketball team," he forgets that a vocal minority has always been against the pros playing in the Olympics, going back to Dream Team II. These folks have been waiting for the pros to fail, not because they're racist or unpatriotic, but because they thought it was unfair to unleash the pros on the World game, and they disliked the way the NBA was commercializing the Games, and they thought that our college players were doing a fine job of representing the country.

After Dream Team I, a group of Hall of Famers sent out to avenge the US's loss to the Soviets in 1988, the professional U.S. Olympics teams were unsympathetic -- undefeatable bad guys who acted boorishly and seemed to think that they could beat the world without even trying. Bored by the level of competition, these U.S. teams went out there for style points -- it was the only way to get the media to pay attention to their blowout victories.

These teams were Goliaths waiting for David. As my non-Yankee fan friends keep reminding me, dominance is boring. You knew that the second that one of these "Dream Teams" was vulnerable, the American audience would turn on them. Not because we're all racist crackers, giddy-happy that the African American millionaires have failed, as Mr. Whitlock alleges, but because this is one of those classic tales of hubris. Each Dream Team got more and more complacent -- and less and less talented -- until they had to fail.

Say what you will about the world's evolving game, but their best athletes showed up to play. The opposition's best athletes are often professionals -- some in the NBA, others in leagues around the world -- just like our guys. But the best guys from just about every other country made the time to come to Athens. They weren't frightened by "security concerns".

Sure, the other nations' athletes -- like all athletes -- were motivated by money and glory. But they all put forth their best national effort toward winning the Gold in Athens. Can the U.S. Olympic team really say the same?

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