American dominence should begin with the start of track and field

Posted: Friday, September 22, 2000

SYDNEY This is when you stop counting how many days it is into the Olympics and start counting how many days are left, kind of the far turn on the calendar.

But today is more than the midpoint of the 2000 Games. It is also the turning point. Because this is when Australia's Olympics end and America's begin.

The first eight days in Sydney have been a celebration of Australian excellence - in organization, in hospitality and in the water. Now the Games towel off, though, when attention shifts lanes - from those in the pool to those on the track.

Australia's swimmers have lifted these Olympics so far, have turned the largest event in the world into a local competition. And all of Australia has reacted like a single town on the day of the big game.

It has been impressive, but it's about to end.

Track and field begins today and with it the American dominance that has been curiously absent in Sydney. So far, the United States' performance here has been fairly ordinary, the top of the medal chart drawing more of a crowd than expected. Australia was only one behind after six days. China was within six. France was only seven back, and compulsory rudeness isn't even an event.

The Games, to this point, are still a game.

But then, look at some of the sports that have already had their finals: archery, weightlifting, fencing -- events that draw little interest and less participation in America. Cycling medals have been scarce for us, too, maybe because we view it less as a sport than a stationary exercise. We also haven't done much in the shooting events. But then, our best shooters are in our cities, not in sweats.

We usually do better in swimming than we did earlier this week, when the Aussies and Dutch were combining nightly on a giant U.S. dunk. But, even with all the past success there, swimming is not really an American sport. It is part of our club culture, with private pools generating talent but not broad appeal.

A lot of these Olympic sports are just too technical for us, too involved. They require more discipline and more precision than we have patience for. We like things simple, sports that you can go out and just do.

We run. We jump. We throw.

Well, not me. I sit. I type. I snack.

But the premier athletes in America are those whose sports require a high degree of athleticism. Those are the ones who fascinate us, who become our stars.

And when the pistol fires at Olympic Stadium today on eight days of races, they're also who should start running away from everybody the way U.S. athletes always do.

I know that's an obnoxious American boast, an opinion you're not supposed to express about yourself. But it's true. When it comes to going in circles, the rest of the world just can't keep up with the U.S.

Yes, Kenya has traditionally owned the long distances. And Canada's sprinters have gotten so fast lately, somebody should check if they're wearing their skates.

But from top to bottom, over the bar and through the tape, track and field is an American specialty. And starting today, that will drive the 2000 Olympics home.

U.S. athletes are favored in as many as 15 track-and-field events, depending on which rankings you believe, and might win as many as 30 medals at the stadium during the Sydney Games' second week. Michele Johnson, Maurice Green and Marion Jones could all come away from this week hugely popular.

All that will change the tone here, and the tune, as that rhythmic "Oi, Oi, Oi,'' you've been hearing at stadiums is about to be drowned out by the ubiquitous "U-S-A.''

Even the Australian Olympic Committee is being realistic about how it will do from here. The organization ambitiously predicted the home team would win 60 medals, but projected that only four of those would come from track and field.

The chase that has continued on the medal table all week will sink when they drain the pool. And that's too bad, really.

I would actually like to see the Australians keep winning events and collecting medals. It's just more interesting that way. The crowds are more animated, the streets more alive, the pubs more fun.

But they keep telling us here how unhurried they are. Now that will start to work against them. Because the track is no place to relax.

So, thanks for keeping the Olympics warm for us Australia.

We'll take it from here.

Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at 652-0352.

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