Baseball is America’s national pastime, but we won’t be seeing a U.S. Olympic baseball team in the 2004 Athens Olympics. With a quarterfinal round qualifying loss to Mexico, the defending gold medalist U.S. team had its hopes of repeating, or at least playing alongside Roger Clemens, squashed. Obviously, this loss is incredibly humiliating, but where does it rank among the all-time most embarrassing performances in American sports history? Here are my top ten:
10) The men’s 4×100 meter freestyle relay at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. The United States had never lost this swimming event. In the trash-talking leading up to the relay, Gary Hall Jr. guaranteed that the U.S. team would dominate its Australian rivals. He specifically said the host country would be “smashed like guitars.” After the Americans lost, Australian team members played imaginary air guitars.
9) 2003 Women’s World Cup. On home soil because of the outbreak of SARS in China, the U.S. women were favored to repeat their celebrated 1999 victory. The U.S. entered the semifinals unbeaten before falling to Germany by a score of 3-0. The hero of the 1999 World Cup, Brandi Chastain, was injured on the sidelines as the legendary Mia Hamm failed to rally the U.S. team in her last World Cup game.
8) 1998 President’s Cup. The United States entered this competition against non-European international golfers as a heavy favorite. However, a dream team composed of Tiger Woods, David Duval (when he was actually good), Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples and Mark O’Meara, among other top players, never had a chance. In what has since been called “The Massacre at Melbourne,” the American team captained by Jack Nicklaus lost by the embarrassing margin of 20.5 to 11.5, the worst ever for a U.S. team in international competition.
7) 1998 World Cup. With high expectations after advancing out of group play in the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. team finished dead last in 1998. In losing its three games, the American team managed to score only one goal. The low point was a 2-1 loss to Iran. Television cameras captured the Iranian fans watching at home on a 10-second delay, celebrating their victory over the “Great Satan.”
6) 1972 Olympic Men’s Basketball. The U.S. team entered the gold medal game against the Soviets with an all-time record of 62-0 in Olympic play. The American team, featuring top college players, had some notable absences, including UCLA’s Bill Walton. However, the team was still heavily favored to win gold. The game is best remembered for the horrible officiating that transpired with the United States holding a 50-49 lead with three seconds remaining. The Soviet team received three chances to win the game. First, they inbounded the ball before a whistle was blown for a supposed Soviet timeout. Then, after once again inbounding, the Soviets attempted a desperation shot and missed. As the Americans celebrated, the Soviet coach contended that the clock had been improperly reset, giving the Soviets another try, which they converted for a 51-50 win. American protests were denied, and the United States did not accept the silver medal.
5) 1995 Ryder Cup. On home soil at Oak Hill, the Americans were in a great position to defend consecutive Ryder Cup victories heading into the final day of competition with a 9-7 lead. The United States needed to win only five of 12 singles matches to retain the Cup. At one point, the United States increased the lead at 11-8, and victory seemed inevitable until a tremendous choke. The obvious goat was Curtis Strange, who lost the final two holes of his match to Nick Faldo when a draw would have given the United States the Cup. On the day, five matches were decided on the 18th hole, and the Europeans won four and tied the other. Europe won the Cup by a margin of 14.5 to 13 .5.
4) Davis Cup 1996-present. American men dominated tennis throughout the 1990s, winning 21 of the 40 grand slam titles in the decade. However, the United States only captured two Davis Cups, the last one in 1995. The simple reason for this gross failure is that the top players were largely unwilling to play. While other nations’ best take Davis Cup very seriously, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras tended to avoid representing their country in a phenomenon that is uniquely American.
3) 1998 Men’s Olympic Hockey. After stunning Canada to win the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, expectations were high for the U.S. Olympic team that would include NHL players for the first time ever. However, in group play, the team went a miserable 1-2 before being eliminated from medal contention by the Czech Republic. It only got worse for the Americans after the media reported that the team had trashed their hotel suite after the quarterfinal loss to the Czechs.
2) 2003 Olympic Baseball Qualifying. The defending gold medalists had to be dreaming of a repeat in Athens alongside Roger Clemens and possibly Mark McGwire. The United States breezed through group play, going 3-0 and winning by a combined margin of 21-0. Then, a shocking 2-1 loss to Mexico last weekend. The Mexican team was 0-3 in group play and only advanced to the quarterfinals because the Bahamas had forfeited.
1) 2002 Basketball World Championships. Despite the fact that top players such as Kobe Bryant, Shaq, Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady didn’t play, the United States dressed second-tier NBA stars such as Andre Miller, Elton Brand and Michael Finley and was an overwhelming favorite on home soil in Indianapolis. The United States entered its game against Argentina with a record of 58-0 in games played with NBA players. The Argentines led from wire to wire and stunned the Americans 87-80. Then, the United States entered the playoffs and lost to Yugoslavia and Spain, finishing in sixth place overall.