On a night when the women gymnasts were performing a "gala," a
figure skating-type exhibition that had as much to do with
Olympic competition as Snoopy on Ice does, some of their U.S.
sisters were playing real sports with real gusto for real
medals. The sports weren't particularly glamorous and were poor
showcases for the little-girl look the Games have traditionally
favored (no teddy bears here). But you know what? They were more
popular than anyone had a right to expect.
Women's softball--like women's volleyball and women's soccer and
women's basketball--took these Olympics by storm. Scalpers were
getting $300 a seat for the gold medal softball game between the
U.S. and China in 8,500-seat Golden Park, and throughout the
tournament the U.S. games were sellouts. Although these Games
were supposed to herald a sea change in the image of women
athletes, especially in team sports, few could have predicted
that athletes such as Dot Richardson and Lisa Fernandez would
become as recognizable as Tom Dolan and Mark Henry.
These softballers play a game that is totally different from the
Thursday night beer blasts that most men are familiar with. An
underhand pitch from Michelle Granger, just as an example, can
reach 73 miles per hour. And a home run by Richardson, a
34-year-old orthopedic resident who spent her Olympic downtime
assisting in knee and shoulder surgeries, travels just as far as
most men's--and more often.
The U.S. supremacy in softball going into the Olympics was a
well-kept secret: How many of us knew that the team had a
10-year record of 110-1 in international competition? Still, a
win against China, the last team to beat the U.S. before the
Games, was not a foregone conclusion. Though the U.S. had beaten
China twice in the tournament, it had also been upset by
Australia. And this finale was close and controversial. Looking
at replays of catcher Gillian Boxx's third-inning tag at the
plate (safe or out?) and Richardson's homer (fair or foul?)
might give the Chinese doubts about who's really the best. But
with the tournament dominated by the U.S., few others would
suggest their 3-1 win was not conclusive.
Anyway, the whole thing was an eye-opener. And you can bet that
the next time there's an Olympic gold medal softball game, it'll
be in a larger stadium.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Granger's 70-mph deliveries helped the U.S. take the inaugural softball gold in a controversial 3-1 win over China. [Michelle Granger pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONOThe U.S. victory prompted a celebration matching the enthusiasm of the sellout crowd as softball proved to be a scalper's delight. [Members of the women's softball team hugging]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO China's Liu Guoliang went eyeball to ball in the men's table tennis doubles finale, and he and partner Kong Linghui netted the gold. [Liu Guoliang playing table tennis]