An American in Paris ... and Scotland ...

Sports Journal

They were two moments to remember for the thrilled European multitudes who once curled their lips at loutish intruders from America.

Here came the Americans of a dawning millennium in international sport.

Here was Lance Armstrong, standing on his pedals, hammering his way to victory in the Tour de France, a cycling race whose demands of stamina and commitment were once standards too high and mighty for Americans.

A few hundred miles away, on the shores of the North Sea in Scotland, here was Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer on earth, calmly imperial, striding up the fairways of St. Andrews Royal and Ancient Old Course, looking like he would win the British Open.

But before he finished, here was David Duval, mounting a charge on the final day, pressing Woods, stalking him, and turning the threatened runaway into a man-to-man duel far more thrilling for the television millions than another showcase for the Tiger from California.

Still, it was Americans, going head to head, igniting the galleries.

And it added heightened drama to a Sunday that also belonged to another American, Armstrong with his controlled ferocity and a will that could overcome illness and now the elite of the world's bicyclists for the second straight year.

How memorable and significant was all this, in a television medium where the theatrics come and go and the stars blur into each other and leave the watcher sated with the raw congestion of all those jocks on TV?

This was not just one more Sunday.

This was a day of truly big-time drama and spectacle, and America's best was in the middle of it, in Scotland, France, and around the world.

Winning again

And yet why was nobody surprised by the Americans winning again? Or by the frank adulation they stirred among the European crowds who once looked on Americans as boisterous bumpkins from the wrong side of the pond, unburdened by refinement, manners, or class.

Nobody was surprised because this is the year 2000, a year in which Pete Sampras and Venus Williams won in the temple of world tennis, Wimbledon, and not long after the American women took command of women's soccer, a game totally alien to Americans just a few decades ago.

And now 2000 looked like the Year of the Tiger at St. Andrews, the birthplace of international golf, and of Armstrong at the Arc de Triomphe.

It was the Americans again, hogging the championships in games and venues that are the pride of European athletics. But these were somehow different kinds of champions, and victory for the Americans was no signal for a wild burst of jingoism from the colonies across the ocean. They were champions who not only looked the part of international heroes but aroused the awe and respect of European audiences who might otherwise have been resentful.

Different times

The old transatlantic animosities, of course, are now mostly obsolete. The world war changed that, and so did American generosity in rebuilding the shattered nations that were the wars' casualties.

With that change came the first invasions of American athletes. Some of them the Europeans found endearing, like Ben Hogan, who was revered by the galleries in Scotland as the "Wee Mon." There were John McEnroe and Jimmy Connor, not so endearing, and then Chris Evert and the great track stars, and then Jack Nicklaus.

And now Tiger and Lance, the crest of the new wave of American superstars who have now become genuine international icons.

It's hardly a monopoly. Shorn of its best players, the American Davis Cup team was routed by the Spaniards on the same weekend when Armstrong triumphed. And American men's soccer does not quite terrify the Brazilians, French, Germans, the Dutch, and others.

But on Sunday, it was still an American hour on millions of TV sets around the world.

It was not only that Armstrong repeated as the Tour de France champion that earned the admiration and then captivated the European crowds. It was his history and his relentless drive to overcome. The Tour de France may be the ultimate expression of determination. It is three weeks of pressure and peddling, riding in packs and in wind and rain, climbing mountains, dealing with the diabolical strategies of opponents, personalities, exhaustion each day.

Americans have nothing like it. But Armstrong had made all his calculations, and trained with a regimen so exhausting that it mocked the old canards about "soft Americans."

Armstrong knew where he would win - in the grinding ascents of the mountains, choking off the lesser riders with his endurance and his strength and the steel of his resolve, intimidating because here was a man who could say - as he did in his autobiography - "We can take responsibility for ourselves and be brave."

Tiger on the links

Tiger Woods didn't need to be brave. He needed only to be Tiger, which meant that here was the truest of international stars, a man with his mixed-ethnic heritage, from Thailand to America, and with athletic gifts that on many days seem unworldly.

His intensity never dimmed, yet at St. Andrews, he knocked in 20-foot putts as casually as a cashier ringing up a sale. When he got into trouble in St. Andrews's kooky rough and kettle bunkers, he pulled off shots that lit the wonder of seasoned golf professionals in the broadcast booth.

His strength and command seemed effortless and, because of the scope of his recent runaway victories, it seemed an almost mathematical certainty that he would be the youngest golfer ever to achieve the grand slam of his game. And his opponents played as though they understood that.

For the audiences back home, the beauty of Americans winning in Europe on the same day was not only winning the championships, but doing it with class, which may be the essence of the champion.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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