FOUR YEARS AFTER ATLANTA, AMERICAN WOMEN'S TEAMS NOT AS PERFECT

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

In 1996, the American woman was everywhere, especially on the athletic fields and floors of the Atlanta Olympics.

The United States women's soccer team won a gold medal in front of more than 75,000 spectators -- this even before the Women's World Cup in 1999. The women's basketball team crushed all comers and then launched not one, but two professional leagues.

The women's softball team came back from a gut-wrenching (and rare) loss to beat the same team in the championship game. The women's gymnastics team vaulted off the floor and into our living rooms as "The Magnificent Seven" won the team title.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Sydney.

In the four years since Atlanta, trouble has cropped up as these four Olympic teams prepared to defend their championships.

The women's soccer team, after winning the 1999 World Cup in spine-tingling fashion, spurned U.S. Soccer's planned outdoor series of celebration matches for guaranteed money playing indoors against a traveling world all-star team. Billing themselves "The All-American Soccer Stars," they posted a losing record in the series of exhibitions, but reportedly earned upwards of $50,000 each and played in front of packed houses from Philadelphia to Seattle.

The women's soccer team then went on strike for pay parity with their male counterparts. During the dispute, the team lost their inspirational head coach, Tony DiCicco, who took a new job with the Women's United Soccer Alliance (WUSA).

Once the players' dispute with U.S. Soccer was settled, the team lost their first two games under new coach April Heinrichs. Heinrichs, the first female head coach in the history of the U.S. senior women's national team program, had been on the forward line for the 1991 World Cup final when, in the final minutes against Norway in a tie game, Michelle Akers Stole The Ball.

The women's basketball team underwent a similar change in coaching, as 1996 assistant coach Nell Fortner replaced Tara Vanderveer. But Fortner has challenges that Vanderveer, for all of the 60 consecutive wins in 1995-96, never faced. One is the piecemeal travel and practice schedule which had been laid in front of her. There are three seperate and distinct playing periods for Team USA, and none during the slightly shortened 2000 WNBA season.

On the court, the Americans have been dominating, but not perfect. Sudden efforts in the second halves of games have given the Red Machine easy wins, but you know that several national teams have already ordered videotapes of their November 7, 1999 and March 18, 2000 games. That's when the Americans dropped games against Tennessee and the Brazilian national team.

The training periods for Team USA have been somewhat scattershot. Since September of 1999, the team has not been on a constant series of games with the intensity of Vandeveer's 60-game schedule. Rather, given the fact that the WNBA season was scheduled to end few weeks before the Olympics began, the team played 10 to 12 games at a time on short tours of the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Owing to the physical demands, Sheryl Swoopes, Jennifer Azzi, and Cynthia Cooper -- three extremely important cogs in the Americans' efforts four years ago -- removed themselves from the player pool.

If the departure of two members of the Olympic basketball team is a ripple, then what has happened to the American women's gymnastic program is a tidal wave. The Magnificent Seven -- Amy Chow, Jaycie Phelps, Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug, Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, and Amanda Borden -- went on tour after the Olympics, much like the women's soccer team did in 1999. But one competing tour managed to pry Strug away from the other six for the fall of 1996 (the seven have subsequently stayed together for exhibition tours).

There have been many doubts as to which of the seven might return to the Sydney Olympics. Four have announced their intentions to do so, including Moceanu, who had competed in Atlanta at the age of 14. She was expected to contend for a Sydney slot, if not gold in the all-around, having beaten stiff competition at the 1998 Goodwill Games.

Then came October 22, 1998, the day Moceanu ran away from home and sought a restraining order against her parents. After several months' worth of negative publicity and charges of abuse, she moved off on her own, leaving her parents' gymnastics club. Knee surgery in early 2000 has left doubt as to her fitness for Sydney.

Worse for the American gymnastics effort, the Stars and Stripes were getting their balance beams handed to them in international competition. In the 1997 World Championships, there were no medals for the women. The highest finisher in the individual event finals was seventh, for one event. Worse, in the all-around scoring, three members of the American sextet finished 178th, 190th, and 227th.

To stop the hemorraging, USA Gymnastics called on the master, Bela Karolyi, to take over the women's program and return it to championship form as he has so many times in the past.

About the only 1996 gold-medal team which has not undergone an on-field swoon has been the U.S. softball team. They are continuing to play at an extremely high level on the road to Australia, and have commenced on a 34-game tour to start in Chattanooga and end in Honolulu.

Off the field, however, is a much different story. In a six-week period encompassing mid-April and early June, the selection process of the 2000 Olympic softball team has moved to a place heretofore unknown: the courts.

After an initial selection of the 20-woman roster, an arbitrator directed USA Softball to reselect its team, which was announced May 2. According to the directive of the federal arbitrator, only the five-day camp was to be used as the prime guide, while intangibles could be used to weigh one player against another.

One month later, however, an appeals court threw out the selections, saying that they had not been done in accordance with U.S. Olympic Committee regulations. As of early June, therefore, there was no Olympic team set for action.

"Every athlete has the right to appeal," said Brian McCall, a USA Softball spokesman. "One arbitrator found that the selection process was done properly. The other pointed out a loophole that says an approval process begins after it has been approved by the USOC."

The turmoil is the latest negative effect in the softball world. The national team took away several prominent players in the Women's Professional Softball League (WPSL), and shrunk the talent pool. After having six teams between 1997 and 1999 it, has only four teams in 2000, split between Florida and Ohio.

These were the four major team sports that won gold medals in 1996, where, as the host team, the United States had a team in each and every team sport. But, what about the other team sports in the Olympic calendar?

Some have had more struggles than others. The U.S. women's volleyball team, still trying to meet expectations raised while winning the silver medal way back in 1984, made the Olympics through a qualification tournament in Lakeland, Fla., in early January.

The women's handball team, in only its third year of international competition, lost out to Cuba for the bronze medal at the 1999 Pan-American Games in Winnepeg. It was an improvement for the team, seeing as it was ranked last coming into the tournament. Still, it did not earned a berth at Sydney.

The women's field hockey team was one team with a big fight on its hands. The team, having tied perennial world powers Argentina and Australia in 1999, spiraled into the depths of a nine-game losing streak in late 1999 and the first three weeks of 2000.

At the Olympic Qualifier at Milton Keynes, England, the Americans were in an extremely tough pool with world-class talent. The United States was able to eke out a win in pool play, giving it a shot at the fifth and final Olympic berth. But China proved too much in that contest, winning 2-0 to shut Team USA out of Sydney.

The most interesting road to Sydney was taken by a new women's sports entry: the United States women's water polo team. There is no defending champion, so all but one Olympic berth must be earned into the Sydney tournament. Team USA's chance came at the Olympic qualifier at Catania, Italy.

There, the United States had a relatively easy time in pool play, then eked out a win over Hungary in the semifinal match. The win gave the Americans a berth in the Olympics; the 6-5 loss to Russia in the gold-medal match was almost secondary.

"Iím so happy," said Maureen OíToole, generally regarded as the Michelle Akers of womens water polo. "So happy for our country to be in the Olympics. We had a responsibility to get us there and we did it."

"This was no surprise to our team," said team captain Julie Swail after the tournament. "We earned it. For two years we have worked for this moment. I believe we can beat any team in the world right now. This was just the first goal, it isnít the end. That will come in Sydney."

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