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The recent failures of American professional athletes on the world stage (Basketball World Championships, Ryder Cup, World Baseball Classic, World Cup of Hockey, FIFA World Cup) have brought up the question. How can the richest and one of the most populous countries in the world fail to take a championship in a major international competition? I think the reasons are manifold, but solutions are hard nay near impossible to come by without fundamentally changing the structure of sport in the United States.

1.) World Champions?
Let's examine how sport is played in the U.S. Major League baseball's championship is declared the "World Series" even though only teams from the US and Canada participate. The Super Bowl winner is often declared the "World Champion," despite never playing a team or often even a game outside US borders. Ray Clay introduced the starting lineups for "Your World Champion, Chicago Bulls!" ignoring that aside from the Toronto Raptors and the then-Vancouver Grizzlies, the Bulls had never needed to pack their passports. These three leagues are arguably the three most popular leagues in the US. Some American sports often have a view of themselves that because the best players in the world play in a league in the US, therefore, the winner of said league is the "World Champion" without making the distinction between club and international competition.

However, this nomenclature differs in sports where strong national leagues exist outside Uncle Sam-land. The NHL winner is only the "Stanley Cup Champion" to recognize that while the NHL is the premier hockey league, there are solid leagues in Europe as well (why many NHL players played there during the lockout.) MLS only crowns an "MLS Cup Champion." The PGA Champion is just that. The PGA Champion, recognizing the strength of golfers from abroad.

The "World Champion" Chicago White Sox have a roster of players from 6 countries. Until they are eliminated from the playoffs, the Sox are technically the best club team in the world, but the best national team in the world is Japan. If the World Baseball classic was structured where the national champion of each country faced off, the White Sox would certainly beat the Hiroshima Carp or the Mexican League champion or what have you, and we'd have an American "world champion." American fans need to recognize a difference between club and national team competition. If the best players in the world play here, that must mean they came from somewhere else, and will play for a different flag.

2.) Money
Not that the players are millionaires, because last I checked, Dirk Nowitzki didn't play for the Stars and Stripes. For many years, Americans were able to dominate athletic competition (the Olympics) in part because as such a wealthy nation, Americans were able to put more of a focus on sport, and its infrastructure. Now other countries have caught up, putting more money into their national programs. These are often countries that may still be considered "third world." Countries like Mexico, who defeated the U.S. in the WBC, and Ghana, who defeated the US in the World Cup.

Create more of an integrated youth system. National teams abroad often field U-23, U-20, U-18, U-16, and so on national teams. In the US, with different teams between grade school, high school, college, and pro, any player will have had a minimum of 4 different coaches, in four different systems for four different teams before they put on the USA jersey for the first time.

Now, we can't change the number of coaches as players age, but we can change the system (but it won't happen because it's too radical). For example, Joliet Park District's youth football program uses the same playbook and system as Joliet Catholic Academy, an Illinois State football power. By the time the kids get to high school, they've been working with the same system, and playing with each other as a team for many years, rather than a hastily assembled "all-star" team.

3.) The US "major sport" federations don't take international competition seriously
With the exception of the US Soccer Federation, none of the US National teams seem to take the idea of global competition seriously. USA Basketball is starting to turn the corner here with the development of a permanent player pool, but it's only during the NBA offseason, and the team is still more or less thrown together weeks before the competition. While Coach K is on board to skipper the team, if torn between focusing his energies on USA Basketball or Duke Basketball, who do you think he's going to choose?

Spend a little money and announce a full-time national team coach (basketball, baseball, hockey), where coaching the US team is his (or her, but who are we kidding?) only job. However, this would require a year-round national team, with competitive international games or exhibitions every...say...6 weeks. Stability breeds familiarity.

4.) Americanizations lead to championships of America only
In the US, one of the reasons, by far not THE reason, but there nonetheless, is that we tailor the rules of sport to be more appealing to fans and tv, instead of winning competitions. One isn't better than the other, but to wonder why Americans underperform across the board, you have to look at all the causes. The rules of international games are changed or "Americanized" to make it more appealing to fans and more lucrative to owners.

The average NHL rink is about 15 feet narrower than a standard international rink. What this does (inaddition to lining owners pockets with more close-up seats is breed a more physical "smashmouth" game than the international game, which is based more on speed and finesse than the NHL. OK, how come Canada's so good when they play on the same rink size? Canada has a much larger and much more talented player pool than the U.S.

NBA, NCAA and High school basketball in the US use a rectangular lane. International competition uses a trapezoid lane. In the US, if the ball hits the rim and stays in the cylinder, to touch it is goaltending. Abroad, it's fair game.

When MLS first started, it used a downward counting clock that stopped at zero, and used 35-yard hockey-style "shootouts" to resolve ties, and best-of-three playoff series. The US National Team came in dead last at the 1998 World Cup. They then switched to an upward counting clock with stoppage time, allowing ties, and switched to two-game aggregate goal playoffs. Since then, the team has markedly improved. Not saying they're related, but aligning with international standards and gaining familiarity with the rules and nuances of international play can't hurt your performance in international competition.

Trapezoid lanes. They'll only look wierd for a while.

5.) History of mediocrity
Americans failing in international competition is not a recent phenomenon, which is why I haven't used the "Overpaid whining spoiled millionaires" excuse. While Americans have traditionally dominated the Olympics in the final medal count, in "major" sports our trophy case is relatively empty, even in our "Big 4" (I'll include soccer since there's no such thing as international football (pointy ball). Just look at our long list of accomplishments.

Soccer: Before 1990, the US had made it to the World Cup Finals only once since 1938, and that was in 1950. In the World Cup Finals since 1990, the United States has gone 3-12-3.

Basketball: While one of the top teams in the Olympics (the only time the Americans haven't medaled was during the 1980 boycott), the US hasn't performed up to snuff at the World Championships. The US has only won this competition 3 times out of 15 tries.

Baseball: Baseball has only been an Olympic sport since 1992, but the Americans only have 2 medals (Gold 2000, Bronze 1996) That's one less than Japan, and only one more than Chinese Taipei. In the old Baseball World Cup (held regularly every 2-3 years from the 1940s to 2005) the US only won the tournament twice.

Hockey: The 1996 World Cup of Hockey was the United States' first international championship since the 1980 Miracle on Ice. The U.S. has only won 2 medals since 1972 in Olympic hockey, and none in that time when Herb Brooks wasn't the coach.

Just look at the Olympics nowadays. Americans underperform in sports like hockey, bobsled, and other sports that the rest of the world is good at, but we dominate sports where Americans created them, and as such, only Americans are good at them (snowboarding, beach volleyball, etc.) At the 2006 Winter Olympics, the Americans took 25 medals (9 gold, 9 silver, 7 bronze.) 7 of the 25 (28%) came from Snowboarding alone (3 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze). This medal total was nearly twice the closest competitor (4).

You can't argue with history.


Vinnie 7:27 PM  

I must say, I'm impressed by the research. I think a couple other factors might be worth discussing too:

1) The role of simple physiological advantages and disadvantages among different cultures, whether they be genetic or environmental. I know Pat can atest to this as a runner.

2) The role of lifestyle and economics. I know boxing is a perfect example of this; every era has been dominated by the poorest culture (of those allowed to participate) at the time.

I do really disagree with one of the things that (I think) you suggest. That is, we would perform better if we streamlined and focused our young athletes into their sport as other countries do.

I don't doubt that this could be the case (especially with how much we know about anatomy and whatnot, we could probably predict very well what kids would excel at which sports). But if that's what it would take to stay superior/competitive, I say, lose lose lose and lose some more. In my opinion, the specialization in young athletes and focus on athletic competition in our country has been excessive since before we were born.

As I know I've said before, though, I quite honestly don't give a flying frick how successful the U.S. is in international competition because patriotism is for queers.

Vinnie 7:44 PM  

Another thing that a lot of people suggest that I also don't agree with: The U.S. would do better if played with a full-time roster of guys only used for international competition. I see the argument, but I think it overtips that balance between sheer talent and team chemistry.

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