OLYMPICS A MIXED BAG FOR WOMEN, PERHAPS BY DESIGN
By Al Mattei
When a new funding structure was proposed for the United States Olympic Committee, one which emphasized individual sports rather than team events, few could have recognized how far ahead of the curve this thinking was.
In Sydney, American women won plenty of individual gold medals, while the performance of the women's teams were not quite as golden as they were in Atlanta.
The women's basketball team was clearly the class of Sydney, as they won gold easily. However, there were some indications that other team sports had trouble:
* The world champion U.S. women's soccer team was handed an overtime loss in the gold medal contest;
* The U.S. women's softball team won gold only after being forced to win three games in two days because of a three-game losing streak;
* The women's gymnastics team failed to win a medal of any kind.
Other teams had magnificent efforts, perhaps because they were not defending Olympic champions. The women's water polo team lost on a last-second free-throw goal in the gold-medal match against Australia, and the underrated women's volleyball team had a magnificent run in the Games until the semifinal round.
But all of these performances were overshadowed by individuals. There were the expected; as Marion Jones' five track medals attests. Too, there were the heroics in the pool, with the Americans dominating host Australia in swimming events.
There were also expected golds in a couple of new events; Stacy Dragila won the pole vault, and Tara Nott won in her weightlifting class. While teenager Cheryl Haworth fell just short of taking weightlifting gold, you get the feeling that she will be a factor on the world scene for years to come.
But what has to worry some Olympic sports fans is the slippage of the American women in team sports. American women tend to work together in groups better than they do individually; Jenny Thompson has heard all sorts of questions about winning all of her gold medals on relays, but what is not surprising is that she works extremely well as part of a team -- having won an astounding eight gold medals as part of relay teams.
The slippage may be temporary in some sports, but there could be long-range implications for others.
Right now, for example, the gymnastics team has to be in a state of shock. The Americans' reliance on the "pixie" is no longer an advantage, given the age limit of 16 for international competition, and it would appear that present American coaching techniques have not accounted for women participating in the sport, as opposed to pre-teens.
The soccer team will likely be changed dramatically in four years' time -- possibly from top to bottom. With three years between the Olympics and the 2003 World Cup, it is hard to see head coach April Heinrichs staying as national team coach with the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) beckoning.
As for the personnel, the names will be a lot different in four years: Nandi Pryce, Alesha Cramer, and Danielle Slaton are the team's future, having won the Pacific Cup when the top-line American players went on strike for better pay. Many of the players on the 2000 Olympic team will be in play in 2003; Christie Pearce and Kate Sobrero are tremendous defenders, Nikki Serlenga is a midfielder with great speed, Cindy Parlow will only get better on the attack line, and Siri Mullinix is the real deal in goal. Too, the WUSA will give the national team pool much more playing experience than ever before.
The softball team will be rebuilding for 2004; the two-time Olympic champions will likely be without the services of veterans Dot Richardson and Sheila Cornell-Douty, but the budding relationship between USA Softball and the Women's Professional Softball League (WPSL) will allow the league to develop stars domestically rather than having them sink or swim playing international tournaments.
The prospects for the women's basketball team can only get better; don't be surprised to see "The Meeks" -- Chamique Holdsclaw, Semeka Randall, and Tamika Catchings -- on the 2004 Olympic team playing together like they did at the University of Tennessee. Good young players like Shea Ralph and Becky Hammon can only boost the USA's chances. And don't think you won't see Theresa Edwards again; given the fact that she can retain skills and conditioning without the rigors of domestic professional play, a sixth Olympics is not out of the question.
As for other women's national teams, it will be interesting to see what happens in water polo, given the retirement of 2-meter woman Maureen O'Toole. The volleyball team, thanks to teenage sensation Logan Tom, will only get better.
The question is, will the U.S. Olympic funding formula put a further hurting on women's team sports, especially as a newly elected USOC president has adopted the "pay-for-performance" platform? Could the old formula have prevented that last-second 7-meter goal in the water polo final? Could it have stopped Norway's golden goal in soccer?
Guess we have four years to wait.