Just before the fireworks began splintering the Atlanta sky, just before Gloria Estefan belted out her Olympic tune and just before the skateboarders took to the half-pipe on the stadium floor, the U.S. women's basketball team was being draped in gold. Hard to say who was giddier, the folks settling into their seats for the closing ceremonies or these women doing cartwheels across the Georgia Dome floor after beating Brazil.
The score was 111≠87, so it wasn't a matter of drama or surprise. They had won every game they played in this tournament by at least 17 points. Yet there they were, doing victory laps, dancing so happily that the piped-in Kool & the Gang hit Celebration seemed almost fresh. The exuberance didn't quite fit the blowout they had just won, but considering how high they had just raised their sport, it wasn't inappropriate either.
Lingering skeptics were put on notice that women's basketball was no longerčif it ever wasča girls' game. Lisa Leslie, a silky 6'5", maneuvered easily beneath the basket. Dawn Staley, on a fast break, back-bounced the ball to Katrina McClain for an easy hoop.
The women won their gold medal game by 24 points; the U.S. men won by 26. The women didn't complain about room service; the men did. The women were flamboyant but not arrogant. They were easy to like.
Maybe the women worked harder, too. The men have their NBA season, but whatever benefits that provides the Olympic program is purely accidental. The women, however, spent 14 months touring the world, playing 52 matches, generating $3 million (how many Dream Teamers would that pay?) to promote their game. Judging by the way they tore through the Olympics, it proved to be time and money well spent.
It was interesting that theirs was the last medal decided in these Games, an Olympics that celebrated the athleticism of women more than any had before. It was a relief that the Games ended with such a lively spin on sports, where people looked as if they were actually at play, having fun, doing something they wanted to do. It was, given everything else that happened in Atlanta, encouraging.
A little later, at the stadium, after a strange pastiche of theatrics, organizers extinguished the Olympic flame and allowed the vast cauldron to cool. The torch had been passed to the citizens of Sydney. Good luck to them, too.
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