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On field, U.S is no world power

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

From hot dog eating to Wimbledon, the U.S is coming up short.

On the Fourth of July, a 160-pound Japanese man overcame an American nearly 75 pounds heavier in a hot dog eating contest.

Silly? Sure. Symbolic, too.

Whipped at Wimbledon, whomped in the World Cup, beaten in baseball, Americans can't seem to win much these days -- whether it's on the pitch, the court, the diamond or a ridiculous eating contest.

Coming soon: The World Basketball Championships, where the U.S. team is in rebuilding mode after an embarrassing bronze-medal performance at the Athens Olympics. And the Ryder Cup, where the Americans lost badly on their home turf two years ago and will probably be even bigger underdogs in Ireland in September.

What to make of all this underachieving from the world's only superpower, the country that invented half the sports it gets beaten in and that used to strike fear in the hearts of overmatched opponents from South America to Siberia?

"It is our next great challenge and it should alarm us, because we have to intensify our efforts to support our athletes," said Jim Scherr, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

In two years, at the Beijing Olympics, all these sports will come under one umbrella and the buck will stop with Scherr. Really, though, the problems are unique from sport to sport.

Kicked in soccer

In soccer, the United States has rarely been competitive on the international stage. The Americans went 0-2-1 at the World Cup, and on Friday, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced it would not renew the contract of coach Bruce Arena.

"Eight years is a long period," federation president Sunil Gulati said. "I'm not saying we need to change direction, the direction Bruce set is very positive. But having a fresh approach, after eight years, which is a very long time, is the strongest factor."

Theories bandied about for America's most recent failure started with the most obvious: that while soccer is a big-time participant sport for kids, there is no significant audience for the sport in the United States, which in the long term, undermines participation at elite levels.

"They're making progress over time, but until it's as culturally important as it is in other countries, you're not going to have kids playing on every street corner," Scherr said.

Because pickup soccer isn't popular in America, kids who do play are taught in the team context, which some people say could stifle creativity needed to make stars.

"When I see youth soccer, I see too much organization, too many kids standing around in line waiting to shoot," U.S. captain Claudio Reyna said in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated.

Hold the hoopla

In basketball, the U.S. team is coming off two embarrassments, a sixth-place finish in the 2002 World Championships and a bronze-medal performance in Athens. Looked upon as selfish (players), disorganized (management) and unable to handle it all (coaches), USA Basketball had to rethink the way it does business.

In came Jerry Colangelo as the managing director and Mike Krzyzewski as coach. Their biggest change is that they will no longer go searching for teams from year to year. In place is a 24-man roster made up of players who have committed to the team through the Beijing Olympics.

From those 24, coaches will activate 12 for competitions, but the other players will remain on the roster and with the team. The hope is this system will build some continuity, which was sorely lacking in 2004, and help avoid the mad scrambles that took place when players dropped out because of injury or other reasons.

"Continuity is the key," said Krzyzewski, who has won three NCAA titles with Duke. "And unity also. Before, it was a different team every time. You took 12 guys. There was no contingency plan, no alternate. This way, you get to know people for an equal period. It's an advantage international teams had over us for the last decade."

The first major test of the new system comes next month at the World Championships in Japan.

--In tennis, America's downfall at Wimbledon -- no players in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1911 -- was stunning, though maybe it shouldn't have been.

"The Williams sisters probably delayed the notable downslide we're experiencing right now," said Steve Roush, chief of sport performance at the USOC.

Over the past decade or so, the United States has had a smattering of players at the top -- Sampras, Agassi, Roddick, Davenport, Capriati and the Williams sisters -- but not enough depth or developing players.

Currently, there are four Russian women among the top seven. The United States, meanwhile, has only one top-10 man (James Blake) and one woman (Lindsay Davenport).

At Wimbledon, Donald Young, long viewed as the next great U.S. tennis star, lost in the third round of the boys' tournament. U.S. players went 2-6 in the girls' event.

John McEnroe has questioned the drive of American tennis players. Meanwhile, the U.S. Tennis Association announced it was retooling its player development program and moving it from Key Biscayne, Fla., to the Chris Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla.

"We're just trying to figure this out," Billie Jean King said. "It's not easy in the landscape of the United States. We have a huge area, first of all, compared to other countries. We also have young people in our country who most families want them to go to school, whereas in other countries they don't care. So we have to create a very hungry culture."

--The U.S. baseball team, a team loaded with All-Stars, didn't reach the semifinals at the inaugural World Baseball Classic in March.

Of course, the day is long gone when baseball was a sport dominated by Americans. Still, Team USA's early loss in that event raised eyebrows and had many people questioning whether it was a good bet to play those games before spring training had really kicked in and players had regained their timing.

Then again, shouldn't America's best have been able to beat the rest of the world under any circumstances?

"I believe that if it happens again with this kind of tournament, some of the people including the players who didn't believe it was serious will have to believe now that it is serious," said Giants manager Felipe Alou, a native of the Dominican Republic.

There are problems lurking elsewhere, like in golf, where the U.S. Ryder Cup team could be faced with bringing unknowns Brett Wetterich, Vaughn Taylor and Lucas Glover to Ireland to join Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson against Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington.

And in women's sports -- especially team sports -- where the Americans are now being drawn back to the pack after giving up their big head start. The U.S. women's softball team lost its first international game in three years last year and its first championship game since 1997. The team is seeking redemption this month at the World Cup in Oklahoma.

"We know competition has significantly increased across the board, and in almost every sport," Scherr said. "Certainly in sports in which we've been dominant."

That would, it seems, also include hot dog eating.


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