Ladies Night (and Day)


It’s been quite a mixed bag of performances and emotions from American women at the Olympics of late.

On the track Allyson Felix and Sonya Richards, gold medal favorites in the 200 and 400 meters, respectively, were blown away in their races. The gracious Felix made no excuses for her loss to Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown, while Richards, the fiancé of New York Giants DB Aaron Ross, complained of a tightening hammy. Unlike Tyson Gay’s troubles at the Olympic trials, Richards’ injury seemingly went undetected by most viewers, including NBC’s astute track analyst Ato Boldon.

At least, these ladies claimed hardware, which is much more than can be said for members of the women’s 4 x 100 relay team, whose baton drop mirrored that of their counterparts on the men’s team.

Silver was also the color for the No. 1 seeded women’s water polo squad, as this group came up short 9-8 in the final seconds to the Netherlands in the gold-medal game. Alas it’s a sport to be marveled at for the competitors’ endurance to tread water for long stretches and then transition back and forth in the Water Cube. But some are more interested in whether Wolf Wigo (perhaps the best name in sports this side of German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger) is serving as NBC’s analyst

Many more — especially those at the IOC – had to disappointed by the loss of the U.S. softball squad. Twenty-two Olympic wins dating back to Sydney were preceded by a nearly flawless and lengthy barnstorming tour in the States, some of it chronicled on ESPN2. The U.S. dominance in the sport — the Americans had captured all three Olympic competitions and had outscored their opponents in Beijing 57-2 entering the championship contest — was the reason, tacit or otherwise, softball is going bye-bye from the IOC roster after these Games.

But then came Japan, whom the U.S. had beaten twice earlier in the tournament, including the semifinal. In an amazing feat, Yukiko Ueno was the queen of the circle. She surrendered four runs to the U.S. in the top of the ninth (extra innings after seven in this game), notably a mammoth three-run blast by the Crystl Bustos, the sport’s Babe Ruth. Ueno then went out and topped Australia in 12 innings in what amounted to the bronze medal game and a second chance entry into the final (go figure). She then held the Americans to one run  – another Bustos bomb — in the gold medal contest. Along the way she escaped bases loaded situations in the first ands sixth, aided in the latter by some questionable strategy.

U.S. coach Mike Candrea elected to bunt the lead-off off batter to second on a 2-0 count, his team down a run. That took the bat out of Bustos hands and after another walk, two pop outs followed. Pitch counts be damned, Ueno tossed 409 in a 24-hour period, in lifting her country to the top of the podium and reducing the Americans to tears. 

Despite International Softball Federation president David Porter’s comments to the contrary, the American defeat perhaps could serve to alter the IOC mindset about reinstating softball (and baseball) to the Games in 2016. Having Tokyo host those Summer Olympics couldn’t hurt that cause either. Decisions about softball and the venue (the other contenders: Chicago, Rio and Madrid) are both expected in October 2009.

On the sand, gold was again draped around the necks of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, as they became the first team to repeat as Olympic beach volleyball champions. Playing in a driving rainstorm (May joked afterward that’s why they wear bikinis), the pair ran their match winning streak to an amazing 108. With the American team of Todd Rodgers and Phil Dalhausser also gilded, the domestic league for the sport, the AVP, could look to bigger things ahead as a recent article in The Wall Street Journal opined. 

Just a couple of problems with that line of thinking. Give or take a million viewers here or there, more people no doubt watched May-Walsh and “The Professor” and the “Thin Beast” do their things in Beijing than during a whole season of AVP coverage on NBC and FSN. The sun, sand, skin and party atmosphere of the sport has been on regular TV display for almost generation. Moreover, Misty and Kerri’s biological clocks are ticking — after their victory, both declared their intentions to start families. So, who knows if the queens of the beach are going to be playing at all in the years ahead, much less take aim at three-peat gold in London.

Conversely, Women’s Professional Soccer — the second start-up U.S. female futbol circuit scheduled to kick off next year — should take away some moment from the Americans’ performance in China. Not many WPS supporters were likely feeling that way after the U.S. dropped a desultory 2-0 opener to Norway in group play..

Indeed, in the minds of some, making a strong showing, if not scoring gold, was an imperative in providing the new league — stepping into the breach left by the cable-centric WUSA that folded after three season in 2003 — with a strong calling card for success and TV partners.

Former U.S. national team captain and now soccer analyst Julie Foudy downplayed the notion in an interview with MCN during ESPN’s coverage of Euro 2008

“Winning the Olympics would certainly help, but the business plan is better than with [WUSA],” Foudy told MCN at the time. “This is more organic. It will grow through grassroots efforts,” she said. “It’s not going to burn through $50 million like we did during the first year [of the cable-centric WUSA].

Fortunately, Foudy’s thesis won’t have to be put to the test.

The team, playing throughout the tourney without top goal scorer Abby Wambach who broke her leg in an exhibition match against Brazil just weeks before the Games, banded together. Aided by 5-1 Japanese uprising against Norway, the U.S. actually won its group on goal differential and managed to outlast Canada in the quarters, courtesy on an overtime header from Natasha Kai. In the semifinal versus Japan, they came back from a 1-0 deficit, propelled by a pair of goals just before the half.

Meanwhile, two-time defending World Cup champion Germany finally surrendered to the “it” team from Brazil, and the sparkling talents of Christiana, Daniela and Marta, the world’s best.

That set up rematches of the Athens Olympics final (Wambach provided an OT winner in what was the last hurrah for the “91ers” — Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett) and the 4-0 2007 World Cup drubbing at the feet of Marta and Co.

It turned out to be a redemptive moment for the U.S. and particularly goalkeeper Hope Solo, who became this nation’s most notorious soccer player for having the temerity to say she shouldn’t have been benched in favor of another member of the old guard, Briana Scurry, between the pipes in that infamous WC match. Comments that she would have made the saves Scurry polarizing her teammates and resulted in her expulsion from the squad.  

Reinstated by new coach Pia Sundhage, Hope made like Hans Solo in defeating Marta’s empire, including a right-wing deflection against her strike from within in the box during the 72nd minute.

Carli Lloyd scored the game winner in the first OT Thursday, but make no mistake it was Solo who gave this game and glory to the U.S.

And in the process– especially if Marta and crew join in with the new generation of American players — also made the prospects for WPS a lot more golden.