- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

We celebrate this week the 50th anniversary of European Union — and I do mean celebrate. When France and its neighbors got together in 1957 to create a freer-flowing continent, trade- and travel-wise, they couldn’t possibly have imagined that one of their principal exports would become athletes … athletes that have changed the face of American sports.

Not that the relationship hasn’t been reciprocal. I mean, they gave us the Divac Flop, and we gave them the Fosbury Flop. This is what’s known, students, as balance of trade.

You have to remember, in 1957, Europe was barely on the athletic map as far as most in the United States were concerned. The year before, Augusta National had invited only one player from Over There, England’s Henry Cotton, to compete in the Masters. Next week, no fewer than 14 Euros will tee it up at Augusta, including an Irishman (Paddy Harrington), a Welshman (former champion Ian Woosnam) and a Frenchman (Julien Guerrier, the reigning British Amateur champ).

Speaking of the French, thanks to Jean Van de Velde’s thrashing about on the 72nd hole of the ‘99 British Open, collapses in golf — such as Phil Mickelson’s brain cramp at the last U.S. Open — are now almost universally described as “Van de Veldian” — as in “a Van de Veldian double [bogey on the last hole]” or “a meltdown of Van de Veldian proportions.” They aren’t just taking over our games, these Euros, they’re taking over our lingo.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. After all, there was no bigger sonic boom in 20th century sports than when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile barrier for dear old England in 1954. But even if, in our ethnocentrism, we chose to ignore that epic event, we certainly should have noticed when Ingemar Johansson punched out Floyd Patterson and took the heavyweight crown in 1959. A fighting Swede! What was the world coming to?

After that, the deluge. It began in tennis, with Spain’s Maria Bueno and Manuel Santana and Britain’s Ginny Wade all winning U.S. Opens in the ‘60s. Then Tony Jacklin, the pride of English golf, came over and blew away the Open field at Hazeltine in 1970 — and the drizzle turned into a downpour. Bueno and Wade led to Martina Navratilova, who led to Hana Mandlikova, who led to Steffi Graf, who led to Monica Seles, who led to, well, you know the rest. Santana, meanwhile, was followed by Ilie Nastase, who was followed by Manuel Orantes, who was followed by Bjorn Borg, who was followed by Ivan Lendl and on and on.

In the old days, European golfers tended to stay on their side of the pond (especially since there was no room for them at the Masters Inn). Only when we tuned in to the British Open could we witness the glory of Flory Van Donck, the great Belgian ball striker. Now, of course, many Euros are regulars on the PGA Tour … and are regularly making off with green jackets. Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal — that’s nine Masters titles right there.

As the EU has grown from six members to 27, so has its impact on our games. No sport, it seems, is safe. Sarunas Marciulionis and Drazen Petrovic, a Lithuanian and a Croat, began the Great Basketball Migration in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; this season, if the Dallas Mavericks finish strong, we could have a German, Dirk Nowitzki, voted NBA MVP.

Another German, Uwe Krupp, scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Colorado Avalanche in 1996. The Europeans haven’t quite taken over the NHL — it’s still a Canadian province — but they’ve staked a claim the size of Kjell Samuelsson. Just look at the league leaders this morning. Finn Nicklas Backstrom and Czech Dominik Hasek are 1-2 in goals-against average, and Slovak Marian Hossa, Czech Jaromir Jagr and Finn Teemu Selanne are among the top dozen scorers. Were it not for the skilled, speedy, crowd-pleasing Euros, NHL games would probably be relegated to short-wave radio, never mind the Versus network.

To summarize, then, the Europeans have helped keep hockey breathing, reminded the NBA of the importance of passing and shooting, rid boxing of the pestilence of Mike Tyson (thank you, Lennox Lewis) — and now David Beckham has been enlisted to “save” Major League Soccer. If only the EU could convince standoffish Switzerland to join; then it could take credit for Roger Federer, too.

Not so long ago, you could be fairly certain that Alex English wasn’t English, that Mark Portugal didn’t hail from Portugal. Now, there’s no telling. Euros in the last half-century have infiltrated almost every corner of U.S. sports — with great success. Take Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spurs’ Belgian-born, French-raised playmaker. The guy has won championships (two) and gotten the girl (Eva Longoria). You’d despise him if he weren’t so darned amiable.

So, happy 50th, European Union. And keep those athletes coming.

Oh, we could also use a couple of more bottles of wine.

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