As we near the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics, we must give propers where propers are due. In recent years, U.S. women have cornered the market on Olympic gold in each of the major team sports: softball, basketball, soccer, and ice hockey. And they have done so with discipline, teamwork, grit, and class that has all but eluded their male counterparts.
Admittedly, some of their drive, and subsequent success on the world stage, is due in part to the fact that, sadly, they have few other stages on which to compete. With the exception of basketball (and to a lesser extent, softball), these women have little chance for professional competition.
Perhaps because of that (rather than in spite of it) the women seem to have more fun playing the games they love, appreciate the concept of a team, enjoy playing for one, and are grateful for the Olympic opportunity to prove their mettle against the world's best. We'll continue to have our obligatory men's "dream" teams with their oversized wallets and matching egos, but for my money I'd rather watch the women. And I don't mean that in a beach volleyball sort of way. (Oh, but bless your honed glutes, Misty....)
Whereas a guy like, say, Shaquille O'Neill has nothing in common with anyone I've ever met (he's a 7'2" 300-pound multi-jillionaire comic book superhero), I can relate to the women. They're human. They'll leave the Olympics and return to their everyday lives and, yes, day jobs.
Further, in our recent cases of team gold, the women were able to accomplish what they did because they all understood their roles on their respective teams. And let's face it, few of us get the chance in life to be anything but role players.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking to toss off misogynistic backhanded compliments or to oversimplify the issues. And I don't think for a minute I could touch any of that insanely nasty softball pitching — or, admittedly, even stand in there against it.
I do still love watching men's sports. I'll never give up the speed and checking and the fights of professional hockey. And there may never be another victory as momentous as 1980s "miracle on ice."
But like that tightly knit and focused men's team in Lake Placid, who became media darlings because they were untainted and believed in the world, and in themselves, their teammates, and their goal, so too do these women's teams epitomize all that is good in sport. They take us back to when we were young, when backyard sports were all we had; a time when we, like Willie Mays, "played to love the game."
For that, the ladies should be championed and honored. It's wishful thinking, of course, that — up against America's golden boy swimmer, or even his much discussed new Speedo — they might, as a team, win the covers of our weekly magazines as well as medals, but they deserve it.
The sneaker and sports drink ads are right, these women are breaking ground for new leagues that may well give them equal opportunities to earn a living having as much fun as the guys — and giving our daughters cause to dream.
So when the olympics start next week, give the women some of your time. We could see medals for our basketball, softball, and soccer teams. This is an extended golden age for U.S. women's team sports. Game on.