- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

Part IV of V

Medals. Medals by the fistful. Gold, silver and bronze. One hundred in all.

Such was the mission, the mantra hung over the entrance to the United States Olympic Committee training center in Colorado Springs.

Never mind improved competition, worrisome security, a mushrooming track-and-field drug scandal.

Three months before the Athens Games, USOC officials are sitting in the ballroom of a New York hotel, talking Grecian neckwear. Not the kind for sale on the Plaka.

Delusional optimism? Or insufferable braggadocio? Really, who could say?

“We believe that the team we put on the field can still achieve that [100-medal] goal,” USOC executive Jim Scherr says. “Even if we lose a few athletes between now and the games.”

Fast forward to Greece. The Dream Team flops. Marion Jones is shut out. USA baseball fails to qualify. The fastest man and woman in the world — sprinters Tim Montgomery and Kelli White — are left off the Olympic roster in the wake of the scandal surrounding doping at the Bay Area Lab Co-op (BALCO).

Oh, and American athletes finish with 103 medals, topping the gold and overall medal charts for a third consecutive Summer Olympics.

“The first thing most Americans do when they’re watching the Olympics is to check the medal count,” says sports psychologist Trevor Moawad, who has worked with the U.S. national soccer team. “As long as we’re winning, everything’s OK. We may not be the biggest rowing fans. But we still want to be the best at it.”

So it goes for the United States, the globe’s reigning sports superpower.

In a world obsessed with sweat — British soccer star David Beckham might be better-known than the pope — America’s athletic fixation inhabits a league of its own. Plus a few dozen more, counting lacrosse, bowling and professional wrestling.

One big reason the rest of this wide world looks so “American,” even when so many other nations root against our government, is the far-flung dominance of our sports and star athletes. This series examines nonmilitary, nonpolitical aspects of America’s pervasive influence across the globe — from democratic ideals and entrepreneurial ingenuity to language, sports and popular culture — and some of the consequences and repercussions.

In Washington, the joke goes, the Redskins’ quarterback holds the second-most important job in town, just behind George W. Bush. That may be misunderestimating matters.

The rest of the planet shuts down for soccer’s World Cup; America’s sporting buffet is so overloaded that we can drop an entire hockey season on the floor and not even notice.

Americans play ball, and play it well:

• We have football on New Year’s Day, baseball on the Fourth of July, basketball on Election Day. Women’s athletics were born here. Super Bowl Sunday is a de facto national holiday. ESPN has five stations, including one in Spanish. Somewhere, right now, a golf tournament is under way — and if a fix can’t be found, fire up a Tiger Woods video game. Just in case you’re jonesing.

• The world views soccer — excuse us, futbol — as slightly less vital than the combined teachings of Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha. We see the beautiful game as a way to get the kids out of the house on a Saturday morning. Nevertheless, the U.S. national men’s team advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, finishing ahead of traditional powers Portugal and Italy. The U.S. women’s team won the gold medal at the Athens Olympics.

• Title IX gender-equity legislation and trailblazers such as tennis star Billie Jean King spawned a generation of American women for whom the notion of athletics as an all-male activity is as passe as bra-burning. U.S. dominance raised the profile of sports such as softball, soccer and basketball to new heights among women, forcing the rest of the world to play catch-up.

“Our society has always measured part of its identity by its place in the sports world,” Mr. Scherr says. “That’s intertwined in the people who settled this country and immigrated here. It’s a competitive spirit that pervades our sporting culture. We want to win.”

Show us the money

Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Americans are hooked on competition, riveted by physical prowess — which explains how the fattest nation on Earth dominates everything but sumo wrestling.

Those who can, play; those who can’t, well, they reach for a cheese-slathered nacho while paying a king’s ransom to watch.

Basketball phenom LeBron James has a $90 million Nike endorsement contract. He performs in Cleveland’s Gund Arena, a $152 million stadium that likely will be obsolete before its 20-year, $14 million naming rights expire.

Money fuels our athletic empire, from 12,000-seat high-school football stadiums in Texas to 91,665-seat FedEx Field.

No other nation spends as much on sports. Nor would any other nation bother. Ask Don King: Only in America would the University of Oklahoma, ostensibly an institution of higher learning, have an annual football budget ($29.8 million) almost one-third the size of the Marshall Islands’ gross domestic product.

Only in America would basketball player Latrell Sprewell complain that $21 million over three years isn’t enough to feed his family.

Only in America would Congress grant Major League Baseball — not Microsoft, not Lockheed-Martin, but glorified stickball — a federal antitrust exemption, then permit the sport to extort the nation’s capital for a half billion dollars. Commissioner Bud Selig’s family has to eat, too.

“Our corporate investment suggests where our place in the sports world is,” says David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports business consultant. “Look at the massive role we play at international events like the Olympics. The top sponsors are well-known, well-branded American companies.”

Before the Beijing Games, the USOC expects to collect more than $400 million in corporate sponsorship, enough to fund dozens of high-tech training programs.

Boxers measure fist force with wired punching bags. Swimmers tweak their strokes through computer modeling. Speed skaters sleep in endurance-boosting low-oxygen rooms.

Keep in mind: BALCO’s undetectable steroid, THG, was the work of an American lab, backed by American funding and accused of producing an American world record holder (Mr. Montgomery) in the 100-meter dash. Even our cheating is cutting edge.

Start ‘em young

At the grass-roots level, America’s cups — and other trophies — runneth over with Darwinian youth sports leagues, a system that sorts the stars from the schlubs at ever-earlier ages.

College football serves as the National Football League’s minor league. Amateur Athletic Union basketball teams travel coast to coast in search of prime competition. Athens poster boy Michael Phelps honed his talent at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, a pool powerhouse that also produced teenage Olympic teammate Katie Hoff.

Would-be pros from around the world flock to the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., which offer sport-specific training to athletes as young as 8. Notable alumni include tennis players Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova and soccer phenom Freddy Adu.

“In terms of the size and scope, I don’t think there’s anything like this in the world,” says Mr. Moawad, who also serves as IMG’s mental-conditioning coach. “We’re a country that is always looking for an edge. You’re looking to give your son or daughter every advantage possible to play soccer at American, basketball at Georgetown, play in a World Cup or pro league.”

Just as IMG helped make 14-year-old Freddy the top pick in last year’s Major League Soccer (MLS) draft, America’s athletic investment produces winners. After a disappointing six-medal performance at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, the USOC launched a $40 million winter-sports effort.

The payoff? A record 34 medals at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, more than doubling America’s previous best of 13.

“The American philosophy is the more lottery tickets I buy, the better chance I have to win,” Mr. Moawad says. “Whatever it takes. If you can buy 600 tickets, why not?”

Importing talent

D.C. United won this year’s MLS championship with a Polish coach (Peter Nowak), the goal-scoring son of an Armenian immigrant (Most Valuable Player Alecko Eskandarian) and a Ghanaian-born youngster touted as soccer’s future (Freddy).

Together, they speak to America’s other great advantage: We are the world’s premier athletic talent importer. Hey, why beat them when they can join you?

The Houston Rockets made Chinese center Yao Ming the top pick in the 2002 NBA draft, one of six foreign players selected in the first round. Last year, baseball was home to more Latin-American (28 percent) than African-American (10 percent) players. The best basketball player at George Washington University, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, hails from London. The Revolutionary War is so over.

Miss Sharapova came to the States from Russia at 7, with father Yuri and $700 to their name. She landed at IMG; Dad got a job driving trucks. After her improbable victory in this year’s Wimbledon final, she used her father’s cell phone to call her mother.

Two weeks later, Miss Sharapova signed a seven-figure sponsorship deal with Motorola. Give us your strong, your swift, your overactive pituitary glands, yearning to endorse a lemon-lime sports drink.

Be like Mike

American sports were once provincial. No longer.

Consider basketball. The original Dream Team wasn’t just a gold-medal lock; it was the greatest hoops infomercial of all time. Michael Jordan and company captured the world’s imagination, one high-flying dunk at a time.

The sport boomed. Today, basketball is played on every continent save Antarctica. The National Basketball Association has offices in Barcelona, Paris and Hong Kong. And soccer-mad Argentina is the reigning Olympic men’s champion.

“Basketball is my generation’s soccer,” American forward Lamar Odom said during the Games. “The NBA is on TV all over the world. They have basketball schools [in Europe] where the kids play eight, 10 hours a day. They are putting in the time because they want to be the next LeBron James or Michael Jordan.”

Other sports are reaching out. The NFL runs a six-team European minor league and has played preseason games in Japan. Hockey holds a World Cup. Baseball has built Latin-American instructional schools and may launch an international tournament.

In 1971, U.S. table-tennis players made a surprise trip to China, becoming the first Americans allowed in since the 1949 Communist revolution. Dubbed “ping-pong diplomacy,” the visit helped thaw relations.

About three decades later, Nike considers Yao Ming — a player the shoe giant helped bring to America — the linchpin of its Chinese marketing push.

Sure, the Chinese government recently banned a Nike commercial featuring LeBron James battling a kung-fu master. No worries. Come the 2008 Beijing Games, a billion potential high-top buyers will see him in person.

“People are talking about the Beijing Olympics as a watershed moment for some of these corporations getting into China,” Mr. Carter says. “That ought to be the tip of the iceberg. If you’re Adidas, Coca-Cola, you can leverage these international icons, like a Beckham, a Yao Ming.

“Sports is the international language. The right athlete can be a battering ram.”

The happy hegemon

The instructions were specific: straight lines, rows of eight. No mugging for the cameras. And no using the Stars and Stripes as an oversized toga.

Wary of inflaming anti-American sentiment, USOC officials in Athens kept a tight lid on Team USA’s opening ceremony march into Olympic Stadium. No need. Although the Greek crowds didn’t necessarily endorse U.S. policy in Iraq — a local poll put President Bush’s approval rating at 5 percent — Olympic fans still cheered for Mr. Phelps and his teammates.

“More often than not, people want to use sports as an escape from political pressures, economics concerns, all kinds of domestic issues,” Mr. Carter says. “When people look at LeBron James and Tiger Woods, they see a great athlete. They don’t attach all the baggage of his home nation.”

At a time when American power and principle breed resentment and jealousy in some quarters of the world, our athletic might ruffles few feathers. Sports are a velvet boxing glove; the United States, a happy hegemon.

When Michael Jordan visited China recently, he was welcomed by adoring crowds and a gushing headline from the Beijing Daily Messenger: “How We Have Been Longing For Your Flying Glamour!”

More flying glamour: USA Basketball wasn’t booed in Athens for rejecting the Kyoto Treaty. It was booed for being the tournament favorite. Think the New York Yankees on a global scale.

“You have U.S.A. on your chest,” American forward Shawn Marion says, “and everyone wants to beat you.”

Particularly China. If any nation has a shot at usurping the athletic Pax Americana, it’s the Beijing Games host. For now, however, the global ball remains in America’s court.

After running to a 200-meter dash bronze in Athens, the Bahamas’ Debbie Ferguson noted that her tiny island nation had captured two medals. She smiled.

“Per capita,” she said with a laugh, “the Bahamas actually won the Olympics.”

C’est la vie. Or, as Shawn Marion might put it: When you don’t have U.S.A. on your chest, you take what you can get.

Part III:

World speaks our language and attends our colleges

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