BALTIMORE — What a year 2001 was in sports: Lance Armstrong won his third consecutive Tour de France. Barry Bonds broke the all-time baseball home run record with 73 in a single season. The Williams sisters faced off in the US Open tennis finals, with Venus dominating Serena. And the World Series, in which the Arizona Diamondbacks held off the New York Yankees, was a much needed respite from the war on terrorism.
In 2002, we can expect an even better year, at least in international sports. It will be highlighted by the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and the World Cup soccer matches in Japan and South Korea. Despite America's love of its indigenous games (i.e. football, baseball, and auto racing on an oval track), the Games are the events to which the entire world will be glued - at a time when there is much need for adhesion.
In the opinion of this writer, the World Cup is the greatest event in sports. France, coming off a World Cup victory in 1998, is the favorite to win again. It is led by its spectacular playmaker, Zinedine Zidane, and has an easy early schedule that should allow it to save its strength for the later rounds. Another favorite is Argentina, but it has landed in a group that also included powerhouses Nigeria and England.
The United States, which was inconsistent and troubled by injuries in the qualifying rounds, has a decent chance to advance beyond the first round. It is grouped with Portugal, South Korea, and Poland, all of whom are solid but beatable. It seems likely that the US will have to play a do-or-die game with Poland to advance to the second round - and it probably won't make it farther than that. Some of the best US players - Josh Wolff, Clint Mathis, and Claudio Reyna - have been injured, but should return to full strength by June. Young players like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley add some depth to the roster.
The Winter Olympics, just a month away, is back in the US for the first time since 1980. It will immediately draw attention for having the largest security force of any such event in history, estimated to cost about $300 million. But soon after the torch is lit, the focus will shift to where it belongs: the athletes. The headliners should be figure skaters Michelle Kwan of the US and Irina Slutskaya of Russia, who have the most memorable female skating rivalry since Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
Besides Kwan, 19-year-old American speed skater Apolo Ohno will attract enormous attention as he tries to sweep the gold medals in short-track racing. The US men's ice hockey team should compete for a medal, although the Czech Republic, Russia, and Canada are the favorites. The US women's hockey team should repeat as gold medalists.
In professional tennis, Australian Lleyton Hewitt is emerging as the world's top player, and he should peak in 2002. Competition could come from American Andy Roddick, while Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi will struggle to win another major title.
There is still only one name that matters in professional golf - Tiger Woods. Also of note, the Ryder Cup will be played in 2002 after being canceled last year following the events of Sept. 11.
Meanwhile, American sports should be a mixed bag in 2002.
The National Football League continues to be defined by parity, which, generally speaking, is a good thing. Old-time favorites like Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Oakland have emerged on top this year to compete with a modern dynasty in the making, the St. Louis Rams. Last year's champs, the Baltimore Ravens, are struggling at the end of the season to make the playoffs.
In college football, storied programs like Notre Dame (with new coach Tyrone Willingham) and Penn State are trying to rebuild, while the Florida teams continue to dominate. After the 2001 season, in which Nebraska was chosen to play undefeated Miami for the national title when many saw Oregon as more deserving, the Bowl Championship Series method of determining a national champion will continue to draw criticism and yield confusion.
The National Basketball Association, meanwhile, is stuck in a funk. Nobody can beat the Los Angeles Lakers, and they're highly favored to repeat as NBA champs. Michael Jordan's return, this time with the Washington Wizards, has been a boost for the league, but it's hard to imagine he'll be around at the end of 2002: Losing and hardwood floors could take too much of a toll.
In college basketball, Duke will probably continue its amazing run - this season's team is one of its best ever. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski is arguably America's best team coach in any sport.
Major League Baseball enters 2002 on a low note, even though it's coming off an incredible and exciting post-season in 2001. Commissioner Bud Selig is talking about dropping two teams, though he probably won't accomplish that in 2002. The owners and players seem to be on a collision course over the need for a new work agreement. On top of everything, the rich teams, like the New York Yankees, keep getting better, while the smaller-market teams look more like they belong in the minor leagues.