There is world of reasons for U.S. struggles abroad

July 09, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

American athletes and American teams are stinking it up on the world stage. That's obvious.

What isn't obvious is why. Less obvious is whether this means more, or less, than what it is. Less obvious than that? Whether it really matters as much as many Americans are making it matter.

Lots of people seem to have answers, but in reality, there are so many segments to this topic that no single one tells the entire story.

This much we know: What appeared at the time to be an isolated incident - the men's basketball team coming home from the 2004 Olympics with only a bronze medal - evolved into a trend (in later disappointments at the Turin Games and in the World Baseball Classic), then into a near national crisis.

It hits home today, the day of the final of a World Cup in which the U.S. didn't get out of the first round, and of Wimbledon, where no American male or female reached the quarterfinals for the first time since William Howard Taft was president.

It draws on issues big and small. As big as America's place in global politics today, and as small as the fenced-in patch of dirt that might pass for your neighborhood park.

The big part: "There does seem to be a common thread; no one's saying it, but this might be the twilight of America's super-hegemony," said Jason Loviglio, associate professor of American studies at UMBC. "When you talk about international economics, the driving engine, we're now looking at America and other places. So there is that common thread in sports."

The smaller - but hardly insignificant - part: "For too many children, there isn't an opportunity for sports, so that everybody has a chance to do it instead of individual kids and individual families getting involved because they have the means to," said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the former Olympic gold medal swimmer who is an associate professor at Florida Coastal School of Law.

It cuts across all spectrums, then - from the chances, resources and exposure kids get at an early age that can pay off later, to the role sports plays in the perception of this country inside and outside its borders.

In other words, not only are there not easy answers, but the questions also aren't even that obvious.

Loviglio, for one, isn't convinced that the angst being expressed reflects global events, in which the U.S. isn't winning either literally or in the minds of those in other nations, allies or enemies. "It might be just a coincidence," he said.

But, he also said, it's not dissimilar to the sense of a national "malaise" at the time the underdog U.S. Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviet Union in 1980.

"It's a sense that America is being beat up, that it's getting a black eye," said Loviglio, who also is the director of UMBC's Certificate in Communications and Media Studies program. To many, he added, "it really would be positive for America to have a champion on the world sporting stage."

Sports has been a reflection of this country's better qualities - and, in some cases, the catalyst for tremendous change, as in racial integration - for so long, that when success becomes scarce, it's a problem. "We've had so many great stories come out of sports," Loviglio said, "and lately we haven't had that story."

Which helps explain why this string of losses has affected us - but not the losses themselves. One prevalent, yet terribly simplistic and generalized theory, is that American society, and thus its youth, has gone soft.

A better theory, from Hogshead-Makar: "The whole world has grown up. It used to be in the '60s that the United States dominated. We had all these things, and the other countries didn't."

That touches on another aspect of this that gets overlooked (and Loviglio notices it, too): We tend to dwell on our failures rather than appreciate the greatness others have either attained or maintained - such as the Italian, French, Brazilian and even Ghanaian soccer teams, or Roger Federer and Amelie Mauresmo in tennis.

There's more, Hogshead-Makar added. This society isn't providing what it once did to everybody who wanted it; the privileged and exceptional athletes get it, but few others do. That causes a problem that, in her mind, dwarfs the struggles that Olympic and professional-level athletes endure.

"It's not just about the elite athlete," she said, "it's the health of the entire country."

It's about physical education programs being cut in public schools, about public funds being taken away from recreation facilities like parks, fields and pools, about giving children fewer options and more reasons to stay inside and add to the national obesity crisis.

Our athletes losing in so many international events, Hogshead-Makar said, is just an offshoot of that. "We're just missing talent that never gets to develop," she said.

The bottom line, then, remains easy to state: Americans are stinking it up. Getting to the bottom of it, though, isn't nearly that simple.

Points after -- David Steele

In the World Cup final today, I'm taking Italy and the points. Uh - in light of the scandal ripping through that country's top soccer league, let me rephrase that ...

In the Wimbledon men's final, I've got Roger Federer over Rafael Nadal. The key: When picking between such brilliant players, go with the one not dressed like Laura Petrie from The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Of the 64 players on the two rosters for Tuesday's All-Star Game, six are American-born blacks. That's six more than in the game 60 years ago - before Jackie Robinson arrived in the majors.

Last week, Sam Cassell said that Carmelo Anthony has the clout to draw the NBA's best to an All-Star Game at 1st Mariner Arena. He graciously failed to mention that the Cloverdale courts would be a higher-quality venue.

So, if Luis Matos has been designated for assignment, who is taking his place in the Home Run Derby?

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