The Year in Sports

It may seem like sour grapes to complain about the American women's team after its World Cup victory did so much to raise soccer awareness in the U.S. Nevertheless, the spectators' reactions and the tournament's coverage frustrated those of us who aren't American. I happened to follow the second half of the tourney in France, where one of the TV commentators noted that, "All the teams like trying to beat the Americans because they hate losing so much." The words struck a chord with anyone who's ever watched their squad face the Yanks.

The line from obnoxious to revolting was crossed a couple of months later, prompting the London Evening Standardto describe Americans as being "as odious in victory as they are unsporting in defeat." What provoked this particular outburst was the conclusion of the Ryder Cup. With the Americans trailing the Europeans, Justin Leonard's 45-footer propelled Team USA ahead. The other members of the team, their caddies, even their wives, immediately stormed the green—neglecting the fact that, technically speaking, the fat lady had not opened her mouth yet.

American nationalism isn't new: Watching broadcasts of any Olympics in the U.S., you'd never suspect that there are any competitors from foreign lands. But the pressure is getting worse as bad behavior is spilling from the stands and the broadcast booths onto the actual playing field. It's one thing to have a kid taunt you because you're applauding Denmark. It's quite another to have American organizers of long-distance races discriminate against foreign runners just because the homegrown talent can't compete against, say, Kenyans.

Obviously sports jingoism isn't exclusive to America. After all, hooligans have been stirring up trouble across European borders for years now. But there's a big difference when it's the U.S. that starts flexing its muscles, and it's the difference between an unruly chimp breaking some china and an 800-pound gorilla wreaking havoc on an entire house. When the supporters belong to the only superpower left, everybody, and not just sports fans, starts to cringe. And when American athletes themselves cross the line and behave like boors, that's when their opponents start to really, really resent them. And if there's one thing we don't need at this point, it's for things to spin out of control even more in the overheated world of sports. —Elisabeth Vincentelli


Female Sports Figure of 1999

Serena Williams. Her U.S. Open championship over the bratty Martina Hingis was inspiring. That it was done by this charismatic African American teenager in the still-lily-white corporate world of Grand Slam tennis made it more so. She teamed up with big sis Venus for doubles championships at the French and U.S. Opens to boot. Her dynamic play and barrier-busting presence puts Serena at the top for '99.

Runners-up: Mia Hamm. Mia's Army, that great sea of little girls in No. 9 jerseys, says it all. Hamm has moved an entire generation of young American females to join the world's most popular sport. Oh, and she led the U.S. squad to a World Cup championship in '99, while becoming the top goal-scorer (male or female) of all time. Now, if only she and her teammates can convince U.S. Soccer that gender equity isn't a dead concept. » Cynthia Cooper. Cooper led her Houston Comets to their third straight WNBA title—in fact, Coop and the Comets are the only ones to be champions of that league. She also led the WNBA in scoring—again—with 22.1 points a game and threw down 42 in a contest she dedicated to best friend and former Comets point guard Kim Perrot. Coop's clearly the cream of the league, even while she plays on the same team as Sheryl Swoopes, and she's got 'em raising the roof in playgrounds across the land.

Male Sports Figure of 1999

Lance Armstrong. In the jargon of sports, coming back from the dead means overcoming a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Lance Armstrong overcame far more than that. After Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and his brain, his oncologist had no choice but to lie to him about his chances for survival: 10 percent, maybe. But not only did Armstrong survive, he came back better than ever. He tackled the Tour de France, the world's most grueling sporting event, with the resolve of a man who's been through far worse. And by wearing the Yellow Jersey to Paris on a day when he was lucky simply to be alive, Armstrong gave us the kind of moment—courageous, inspirational, miraculous—that should redefine a thesaurus's worth of jock clichés.

Runners-up: Pedro Martinez. In an era in which 60 homers ceased to be newsworthy, this animated son of the Dominican Republic established himself as the game's one true stopper. Pausing only briefly to cuss out his manager and GM, baseball's uncrowned MVP single-handedly kept Boston within shouting distance of New York during the regular season. And like Wyatt Earp walking into Tombstone, he ambled out of the bullpen in Game 7 of the division series—Muscle pull? What muscle pull?—and silenced the mighty Indians. If Jimy Williams and Co. couldn't overcome the Curse of the Bambino, don't blame Pedro. His ALCS masterpiece at Fenway was the only thing that stood between the Yankees and a perfect postseason.

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