So fair and foul and foul and fair a day we have not seen. Shakespeare penned that line to open MacBeth, but it applies perfectly to the day experienced by America’s Olympic women’s teams on Thursday. It was triumph followed by heartbreak followed by misery followed by ecstasy, a long and grinding day that reminded us why there is no real-life drama better than sports.
It was ladies’ day at the Olympics, the day on which four U.S. women’s teams were going for the gold, a day that was to confirm Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh as the greatest duo to ever mine gold in the sand and to crown the softball team as one of sports’ greatest dynasties, a day on which water polo would force its way into America’s list of favorite sports and the women of soccer would try not to lose too badly to mighty Brazil.
May-Treanor and Walsh came through in the first gold-medal match of the day. Playing a Chinese team in pouring rain and in front of a rabid hometown crowd, the undisputed queens of the sand proved that for them, life’s a beach. They became the first pair to win beach volleyball in two straight Olympics and ran their winning streak to 108 straight matches. As in Athens four years ago, they won gold without losing a single set.
It was a great start to what promised to be a day that would make everyone forget about all the disappointments piling atop one another in track and field. Thursday was no different than other days there, as Allyson Felix of the United States joined the list of sprinters who couldn’t beat the Jamaicans — this time in the women’s 200. To add insult to outrage, both the men’s and women’s 4x100-meter relay teams dropped their batons in preliminary competition, eliminating themselves from medal contention.
But no matter how badly things went in the Bird’s Nest, fans of Team USA figured they could always take solace in the women’s softball team, which was poised to win their fourth and final Olympic gold medal and establish itself as perhaps the most powerful Olympic dynasties of all time.
Softball is gone after this year, a victim, it is said, of the American domination of the sport since it was introduced in 1996. Fans of irony will appreciate then what happened Thursday: the United States lost to Japan.
The softball loss was one of those things you expected to see about the same time Pat Dobson declares the Flying Spaghetti Monster to be his personal savior. If there’s a more shocking loss in the history of Olympic team sports, I’m not sure what it is. I’d say the American’s losing the basketball gold in 1972 to the Soviets, but that game was stolen by the most blatant example of horrendous officiating ever seen outside of a boxing ring, so it doesn’t count.
The Americans had Cat Osterman, the best pitcher in the world, on the mound. And she gave up two runs before the game was four innings old. Osterman probably hasn’t given up two runs since tee ball. The Americans got one back, but despite twice loading the bases with one out, they couldn’t get another. The Japanese tacked on an insurance run, courtesy of bad fielding by the United States, but the final score didn’t matter, only the result did.
The field was already wet with rain that had delayed the game. It got even wetter afterwards with the tears of a team that had carried their country’s colors for so many years with so much dignity and grace and excellence.
While the softball game was going on, the water polo team was taking on the Netherlands. They started badly, giving up four goals before the first eight-minute quarter was half over. They outscored their opponents 8-5 over the final 28 minutes of the game and ended it with a furious rally at the Netherlands’ goal mouth. The final score of 9-8 sent the Dutch into a frenzy of celebration that is probably still going on at the Heineken Holland House.
But at that moment, it looked as if a day that had begun so brightly in a driving rain was going to end miserably on the soggy turf of the soccer stadium, where the U.S. women were assumed to be terribly overmatched by Brazil.
Brazil had laid waste to the Americans in the World Cup just last year. Brazil lost the title game to Germany, but their dominance over the Americans was absolute. The final score then was 4-0, which is the equivalent of winning the 100-meter dash by 85 meters.
The Brazilians probably figured this one would be easy, too. They were fast and athletic and had better pony tails – how could they lose? So they let the 90 minutes of regulation time go by in a blur of inactivity, turning the beautiful game into a beautiful cure for insomnia. I’m not saying the game wasn’t without its moments, just that you could have gone out for a beer in the first period and come back at the start of overtime and not have missed anything.
But the overtime – extra time in soccerspeak – was brilliant. Carli Lloyd fired in a left-footer from the left side of the box early in the first extra period, and then the Americans desperately held on for more than 20 minutes while the Brazilians tried desperately to score the equalizer and send the game into penalty kicks. With time almost out, goalie Hope Solo somehow stuck a fist up through a clot of about eight players in the goal mouth to punch a corner kick out of harm’s way.
The Brazilians were as disconsolate as the American softball team had been, and the Americans, who had long since given up absolute supremacy of women’s soccer, celebrated with the unbridled joy of a team that had done something no one thought it could.
They saved the best for last and the day for their country. It was a day we won’t soon forget.