BEIJING — It wasn’t just Michael Phelps and the Redeem Team and Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. There was so much more to these Olympics, so many stories that briefly snatched a headline before being overwhelmed by the big names in Beijing.
It doesn’t mean they weren’t good stories, just that they aren’t celebrity sports. And in our culture, celebrity outsells everything.
But before we turn the page to baseball and football, let’s take a moment to revisit some of Americas “other” stories at the Olympics. They aren’t all winners. They are all memorable.
Like the men’s basketball team, these guys came to Beijing on a mission of redemption. The United States had once been a world power in volleyball, but it won its last gold medal in 1988 and hadn’t been seen on the medal stand since.
They aimed to fix that in Beijing, where they were the third-ranked team in the tournament behind Brazil and Russia. But before they started play, their coach, Hugh McCutcheon, lost his father-in-law in a senseless attack that also left McCutcheon’s mother-in-law critically wounded. The coach left the team to attend Todd Bachman’s funeral and be with his wife and her mother, Barbara Bachman. After the team won three games, McCutcheon returned.
He steadfastly refused to talk about his loss and his grief, insisting that when he was in the arena, his mind was totally on volleyball. But his players inked the Bachmans’ initial on their shoes and drew inspiration from their coach’s loss.
On Sunday, hours before the Redeem Team beat Spain to return the gold medal to the United States, the volleyball team ripped through Brazil in four sets to win their gold. The lasting image of the winning moment is of the players hugging each other in joy while McCutcheon slipped out of the way, holding his head in his hands, finally letting go of his tears.
The sport was added to the Olympics in 1996 and in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens, the women of the United States had dominated as few teams have ever dominated any sport. They were so successful that the IOC voted the game off the island for 2012. That made Beijing the final opportunity for these wonderful athletes and terrific human beings.
And they lost. Japan beat them in the gold-medal game, a bigger shock than the men’s basketball loss in Athens.
Slideshow: Emotional moments It’s not often we celebrate teams that fall short of expectations, but the women of softball deserve a special place in our hearts. They represented their country as few other have, conducting themselves with dignity and grace, giving back tirelessly to the game, never ducked the media, never whined about anything.
When the final game was over, Tairia Flowers, Kelly Kretschman, Lovieanne Jung, Laura and Crystl Bustos all left their cleats on home plate — a symbolic act signifying that they had played the last game of their stellar careers.
The basketball team did what the softball team had set out to do — continue a streak of domination going back to Atlanta. Lisa Leslie, perhaps the greatest woman ever to play the game, was on that team. She would be back in Beijing for an unprecedented fourth straight gold medal. This time, they had something to prove, though, after having lost the world championship since Athens.
Like the softball team — like all of the women’s teams here — the basketball team represented the best of what the United States aspires to in the Olympics. They set their sights high, played relentlessly, were gracious in victory, gave back to the game.
Their coach, Anne Donovan, happens to be a favorite of mine, a Jersey girl and one of the game’s true pioneers. As a collegian at Old Dominion, she won the Naismith Award. She won a gold medal as a player in Seoul, and she coached the Seattle Storm to a WNBA championship. Now she can add an Olympic gold as a coach to a resume that has no equal.
Don’t ever forget Lezak, the man who swam the fastest 100 meters ever to barely beat Frenchman Alain Bernard and win the men’s 4x100-meter relay. Without Lezak’s heroic final relay leg, Michael Phelps does not win eight gold medals, does not surpass Mark Spitz, does not make history. Phelps gets the glory, but Lezak is the true hero of that race.
Dropping the baton
The worst performance ever by the American sprint team cannot be forgotten. Jamaicans won both the 100 and 200 meters, men’s and women’s, and dominated the races. To add insult to injury, both American 4x100-meter relay teams fumbled baton passes during preliminary races and didn’t even advance to the final. This track and field meet really was unforgettable — unforgettably embarrassing.
The American women also had something to prove in soccer, and Carli Lloyd sent favored Brazil crashing to defeat in extra time with a hard left-footer from the top of the box. Another sweet bit of redemption — goalie Hope Solo. A year ago, she was benched during the World Cup and the United States got blown out by this same Brazilian team. In Beijing, it was Solo who saved the win by rising above a mob of players in the goal mouth on a corner kick in the last minute of the game. They all wanted the ball, but Solo got to it with her fist, banging it out of harm’s way.
The U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team came to Beijing primed for gold and talking smack. It was China who went home with the shiniest hardware, beating an American team that was wracked by injuries and mistakes. Just the same, Liukin took one individual gold and four additional medals — a record haul for a U.S. female gymnast.
Fencing hasn’t been a sport that Americans have been terribly good in. But the women’s saber swept the medals with Mariel Zagunis, on leave from the University of Notre Dame, taking the gold. It was the only fencing gold, but American fencers took six medals in all and established the United States as a nation to contend with.
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