These are the Games that we won't see on TV

September 30, 2000|By John Eisenberg

SYDNEY, Australia - Come out of the Olympic Park train station, take a sharp right into the Dome and you're a stranger in a strange land, suddenly. The final four of men's team handball is percolating before a noisy, sellout crowd of 6,000 fans that includes three European monarchs - two queens and a king.

It's amazing what you find when you go looking under rocks at the Olympics.

America fixates on gymnastics, track, swimming and basketball, but there's another Olympics taking place out of the range of NBC's cameras. The sports we don't play. The superstars we don't know.

The most-watched event in Australia yesterday? It wasn't Marion Jones in the long jump or Lithuania's near upset of the United States in the men's basketball semifinals, but the women's field hockey final, featuring Australia's powerful national team, the "Hockeyroos." The country came to a near-standstill last night as the Aussies routed Argentina.

The gold medal game in men's field hockey is set for today with South Korea and the Netherlands playing after Australia was knocked out in a shootout in the semifinals. The United States? Didn't participate, as you might imagine. Just the idea of a U.S. men's field hockey team is laughable. American male athletes in skirts?

But even more laughable is the idea that men's field hockey is for wimps. The international game is low-scoring and physical, lacrosse without pads, bodies carted off all the time - a brutal game.

America doesn't get it. Or doesn't want to get it.

Just as so many other countries don't want to "get" the rising American sport of women's soccer, either because they're still living in the past and believe women's bodies are meant to be appreciated, not sweaty, or because their culture sets limits on what women can wear or do.

Different cultures, different beliefs, different games.

Spend an afternoon at the team handball final four, and you know immediately why it doesn't play in the United States. Too similar to basketball.

Picture this: A basketball court with lacrosse goals at either end instead of baskets. Seven players, including a goalie, on the court for each team. A ball roughly half the size of a basketball, easily palmed, and players running up and down, trying to fling shots past the goalie. There's no traveling. Players walk all over the place instead of dribbling with every couple of steps. And just when you think you're getting it, a major foul sends some goon into the penalty box for two minutes.

There are high-paying professional leagues in Spain and Germany, with Swedes and Russians filling out the rosters. The game is crazy to an ignorant American just dropping in, sort of like watching basketball in a fun-house mirrors that distorts everything.

You couldn't find it on America's Olympic map with a magnifying glass.

But as Yogi Berra might say, it's huge where it's huge.

The games that unfolded yesterday were major Olympic moments in Sweden, Spain, Russia and Yugoslavia, with millions of fans obsessing and agonizing as they watched on live television and drank their morning coffees.

The Queen of Spain showed up to cheer on her national team, as did the Queen of Sweden. No word on whether they were trash-talking each other in their prime seats. The King of Greece didn't have anyone to root for, but he showed up, too, just slumming at the Olympics.

The crowd in the little bandbox of an arena was beyond rowdy, making as much noise as you might hear in Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium on Carolina night. Australians fell in love with the game, which they hadn't seen, as soon as the competition began last week. Tickets sold faster after the opening ceremonies than tickets to any other sport. Police had to be called in during a round-robin game last week because the crowd was threatening to get out of hand.

On this day, Yugoslavia and Russia played a game that went down to the wire before Russia scored three goals and pulled away.

"The referee was terrible," Yugoslavia coach Veselin Vujovic said.

Told you it was too much like basketball.

The crowd was impossibly loud for the second game; thousands of Swedish fans scalped tickets, painted their faces blue and yellow and showed up to cheer on their team and hoot at the Spaniards. Sweden is the reigning world champion, with a team full of little point guard-like athletes who run a quick weave and create open shots. Sort of a "Showtime Junior."

One of Spain's top defenders is Inaki Urangarin, a veteran playing in his third Olympics, but better known as the Duke of Palma de Mallorca. He met the second daughter of Spain's king and queen at the Atlanta Olympics - the daughter was competing in the sailing - and they married a year later. Truly royalty on defense. A European version of People magazine has a correspondent covering the Duke at the Games.

But it didn't matter who was on defense for Spain in this game. Sweden was too quick, too precise, just too good. The teams played a one-goal game marked by a bench-clearing brawl in the round-robin phase, but Sweden rolled this time as its fans made just about enough noise to be heard in Stockholm.

The Swedish players conducted their post-game interviews in English because the translators didn't show up.

The sports we don't play, the stars we don't know.

Out of America's sight, the Olympics are still good viewing.

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