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Friday, June 23, 2006

The United States: Bad at Sports?

After the U.S. lost to Ghana in the World Cup yesterday (on which more later), one theme running through the commentary was that our lack of World Cup success should not be a surprise because the U.S. just does not care that much about soccer. But is it really true that the U.S. does well in sports that it actually cares about? Let’s look at the evidence:

First, there are the sports that other countries care passionately about, that we don’t care about at all -- cricket, rugby, Formula One racing. We suck at all of these.

Second, the sports that no one cares about except us -- American football and NASCAR. I’m not aware of any international competitions in these sports, but let’s concede that we would dominate them if they existed.

Third, the sports that no one cares all that much about except during the Olympics. Here, our record is a mixed bag:

  • Track and Field -- good at sprinting, bad at distance running.
  • Swimming -- pretty good.
  • Gymnastics -- competitive, but getting worse.
  • Ice Skating -- good at women’s, bad at men’s and pairs.
  • Skiing -- good at snowboarding and freestyle, mediocre at downhill, bad at Nordic.

Finally, sports that we care about that other countries also care about:

  • Basketball -- 6th in the World Championships in 2002, 3rd at the Olympics in 2004. (The U.S. Women still seem to be dominant.)
  • Baseball -- did not make the Olympics in 2004; did not make the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic in 2006. (The U.S. Women still seem to be dominant in softball.)
  • Hockey -- did not make the semifinals of the 2005 World Hockey Championship or the 2006 Winter Olympics. U.S. Women won bronze in 2006.
  • Golf -- We have some of the best players in the world, but only 3 of the top 10 men and 4 of the top 10 women in the world rankings. We haven’t won the Ryder cup since 1999.
  • Tennis -- We have 2 of the top 10 men (Roddick and Blake), and 1 of the top 10 women (Davenport). The last male U.S. player to win a major was Andy Roddick in 2003. The U.S. women who have played well in recent years are fading, with no clear replacements on the horizon.

In conclusion, despite our image of ourselves as an athletic powerhouse, we are actually net importers of sporting excellence. Also, Australia kicks ass.



Blogger Isaac, your bartender said...

I think a little of this is overstated. Let's take 3 of the sports which we care about and have had our share of international disappointments in recent years--basketball, baseball, and golf.

Start with basketball--our recent performances have been lousy, but (1) many of our best players don't show up and (2) those that have have shown they don't care. There remains little doubt that Americans are the best basketball players, but the Europeans in particular have gotten much better. And ask any NBA player whether he cares more about winning an NBA Championship or a World Championship/Olympic Gold, and they will laugh.

Baseball is pretty similar although a number of Latin American nations (most notably Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico (which, let's not forget, is US Territory) as well as Japan are excellent at. However, the WBC this past spring should not represent too much. The major leaguers were just getting back to spring training, much of the tournament was single elimination (and baseball frequently has upsets), and, like hoops, it just wasn't that big a deal to the American ball player. To those from other nations, it is a much bigger deal to beat the big, bad Americans. I'm not saying we're the best in the world at baseball, but we probably still are.

Finally, golf. We certainly have the two best players in the world even if one of them is arguably brain dead. Last year, American men won 3 of the 4 majors and this year 1 of 2. (Okay, so two guys won all 4 of those titles.)

As for the Ryder Cup, there is no question that the Americans are better golfers than the European team. The other best golfers in the world include a Fijian (Vijay), two South Africans (Els (if he's ever healthy) and Goosen) and now some Australians (such as Oglivy). None of these nations are eligible to play in the Ryder Cup. The Europeans, however, care a lot about the Ryder Cup in a way the Americans no longer seem to.

So, my conclusion is that, at least in these sports, the issue is more an American lack of interest in this international competetitions as opposed to the rest of the world. This is obviously not the case with the World Cup, and I have no doubt that Brazil and at least 15 other countries are better at soccer than we are.

6/23/2006 12:01 PM  
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