Mia Hamm nears grand finale on soccer pitch

Posted: Thursday, August 26, 2004

ATHENS, Greece The end is near.

For Mia Hamm, it arrives Thursday, a gold medal showdown in the last game of her storied career. For the U.S. basketball team, it lurks behind every missed jumper as they ponder leaving Athens without a medal. And for sprinter Justin Gatlin, the end waits just 200 meters away.

Gatlin, who's already laid claim to the ''world's fastest man'' title with his gold medal in the 100 meters, anchors the prime-time Olympic lineup on NBC with his race in the 200. About the time he's stepping into the starting blocks, Hamm will step off a soccer field in her Olympic goodbye.

The Athens final is her grand finale, the farewell performance in a career that began almost a decade before women's soccer even became an Olympic event.

Now 32, the world's best woman soccer player is in her third Olympic final, and already owns a silver and a gold. Hamm announced long ago that the Athens Games would be her last with the U.S. team, her last with friends and teammates Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Kristine Lilly the remaining players from the 1991 World Cup champs.

This last Olympic trip could very well have a happy ending, although that once seemed in doubt.

In their semifinal against Germany, a late goal erased a 1-0 U.S. lead and sent the game into overtime. But then Hamm delivered a huge assist on 19-year-old Heather O'Reilly's game-winning goal the veteran feeding the team's youngest player, a symbolic changing of the guard.

Now, in the championship, the Americans face Brazil in a game airing live on NBC. Fittingly, Hamm's goodbye will air on national television a last look at the player who scored a record 153 goals while becoming the Michael Jordan of her sport.

Back in Michael Jordan's own sport, there's Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and the rest of the American basketball team. The U.S. Olympians, at least according to European oddsmakers, are actually the underdog in their quarterfinal game against Spain.

''The best team I've seen thus far,'' coach Larry Brown said of the Spaniards, led by Memphis Grizzlies star Pau Gasol.

But his players still believe the outcome of the game, which airs live on the USA Network, lies in their hands.

''If our best team shows up, we can win the gold,'' said LeBron James, the reigning NBA rookie of the year and one of the team's bright spots.

And if that team doesn't appear? Don't look any further than their loss to Puerto Rico in the Olympic opener.

A loss to the Spaniards would be historic for all the wrong reasons.

It would send the Americans home without a medal for the first time ever. It would give the team three losses in one Olympics, compared with the two losses suffered in the preceding 68 years.

It wouldn't do much for the players' reputations, either.

With a victory, though, the Americans advance to the semifinals and take a step at restoring the aura they carried on their flight into Athens.

In its nightly broadcast, NBC will feature women's volleyball, the long jump competition with world champion Dwight Phillips of the U.S., and women's springboard diving. Once again, though, the sprinters are the center of attention in this case, for all of about 20 seconds.

Gatlin roared to victory in the Olympic Stadium in the 100 meters, defeating teammates Maurice Greene and Shawn Crawford. Greene told the bronze, but Crawford was shut out and he's looking at another medal shot in the 200.

One of Gatlin's top competitors is sidelined under a cloud of controversy: Greek sprinter Kostas Kenteris, the defending champion. He exited the games after a missed drug test and a reported motorcycle accident.

The rest of the men's basketball quarterfinals will air live on Bravo or MSNBC, including the powerful Lithuanian team's game against China. And the bronze medal soccer game, with Germany battling Sweden, was airing live on MSNBC at 11 a.m.

In its afternoon block, NBC will complement Hamm's farewell with action from water polo and synchronized swimming.

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