0-for-the-Olympics slump is lost on U.S. men's field hockey team

July 25, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

ATLANTA -- Not that NBC will let you in on the secret, but there is a U.S. team wracked by turmoil, a team more interested in partying than performing, a team that has never won a game, much less a medal, in Olympic competition.

Would you believe men's field hockey?

"They've got to learn they're not just here for their health, and the opportunity to try out their $230 pagers," U.S. coach Jon Clark said after yesterday's 4-0 loss to India. "They've got to get to bed earlier with their free Cabbage Patch dolls."

Clark, a former goalkeeper for the British national team, was understandably cranky -- his team is working on a 64-year winless streak, in a sport played mostly by high school girls in this country, not strapping men.

The U.S. men figured a strong showing in the Centennial Olympics would bring newfound attention to their sport. Instead, they're 0-3 in the tournament, and 0-22-3 since 1932 -- O-for-the -Olympics.

They make the Bad News Bears look like the Chicago Bears.

They make the 1988 Orioles -- a team that lost its first 21 games -- look like the '27 Yankees.

Mercifully, this is only the second Olympic appearance by the United States since 1956. Both times, it qualified because it was the host country.

When the U.S. Olympic Committee chose not to send the team as an alternate in 1964, it amounted to the proudest moment in U.S. men's field hockey history.

The men actually won the bronze medal in 1932, but only because it was a three-team field. They didn't win a game.

Clark, 32, took over as coach in February. He criticized his team yesterday in a droll British manner, with four U.S. players sitting next to him in the interview room, chuckling.

The captain, Larry Amar, wore an earring through his nose.

The vice captain, University of Maryland graduate Steve Jennings, had one hanging from his left eyebrow.

"We've all read the under-6 child psychology books on how to deal with all the outside distractions," Clark said. "We're just getting past Chapter 1."

His players didn't disagree.

"Once you walk out your dorm room [in the Olympic Village], a million things bombard you, from renting bicycles to surfing the 'Net to video games, just being around a lot of publicized athletes," Amar said.

"We had a bit of a talk about it last night. It didn't seem to be an issue for us. I just think we're not on the same page right now."

Amar then launched into an explanation of the team's inconsistent play. Clark, flabbergasted, turned to his player and said, "Are you going to rescue me?"

Clark grabbed the microphone before Amar could answer another question, and then the two embraced playfully.

This is a sport in which the men once wore skirts. But the coaches seem harder on their players than even their toughest counterparts in American football.

The Indian coach, Cedric D'Souza, wasn't pleased with his team, either.

"We missed too many goals," he lamented. "We should have been in the vicinity of eight or nine."

That might not have been asking too much: India defeated the United States 23-1 in 1932, and 16-0 in 1956. The United States, on the other hand, has scored only 18 goals in its Olympic history.

Still, the team is making progress.

"No question about it," D'Souza said. "I think they're at least 50 to 60 percent improved since I first saw them two years ago."

Clark's response?

"Cedric's a charming man," he said, not at all impressed.

D'Souza has his own problems -- cricket has replaced field hockey as the No. 1 sport in India. A strong showing in the Olympics could help reverse that trend, but India is 1-1-1 with a critical game tomorrow against Pakistan.

Did D'Souza withhold certain strategies so he could surprise India's biggest rival?

"I've got lockjaw," he said.

India, at least, still has a chance to advance to the medal round. The United States almost certainly will be finished after its remaining games against Spain and Germany.

"It's a bitter disappointment," said Jennings, 27, a native of Bethesda. "We've basically shot ourselves in the foot."

Still, the United States won a four-team tournament in Barcelona, Spain, in May, and it has previously beaten many of its Olympic rivals. Jennings said he will postpone plans to attend graduate school to help the team attempt to qualify for the 1998 World Cup in Sydney, Australia.

He began playing the sport in high school gym class. The coach of the girls field hockey team spotted him, and recommended him to a club in Washington, D.C.

"Occasionally, people would ask, 'Do you wear a skirt?' " he recalled. "But before I was 21 I had seen most of the world for free.

"I lived overseas [in Holland] for a year. I met brilliant people. I learned other languages. What more can you ask for in life?"

Just one small thing.

An Olympic victory.

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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