losing effort maybe not the only lesson for american soccer at the olympics
In the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, China came home with 59 medals (28 gold), good enough for 3rd place in the medal count behind Russia and the United States, the latter of which had 91 (36 gold) and dominated the games as has become the summer ritual every four years.
In 2000, the Chinese took home exactly one medal in the Olympic sports of track and field, swimming, rowing, sailing, and canoe/kayak. There are 119 medals available in those sports, all of which the USA excels at. When China found out Beijing would be the 2008 Summer Olympic host city, the nation set forth “project 119″ to take some of those medals and add to their traditional domination in other obscure Olympic sports such as table tennis, badminton, and gymnastics, and hopefully and finally knock the USA off the medal count top spot for the first time in decades. (Russia on the other hand appears it would rather challenge the U.S. and its Allies on the geo-political instead of athletic stage).
In 2004 China took home 63 medals (32 gold) behind the U.S.’s 102 (36 gold). As of Monday at 9pm EST the count for 2008 stood at China 67 (39 gold), USA 72 (22 gold). Economist and bookmakers alike have China winning both the overall and gold medal count. Now that’s how you do national program initiatives.
In the face of this Chinese emergence under Project 119, I couldn’t help but think about our little development initiative, the United States Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer’s “Project 40,” now Generation Adidas, which was meant to develop young American players with the original goal in 1997 being to win Olympic gold on way to taking home the 2010 World Cup. How’s that working out? A Slower road, no? Nobody said communism doesn’t have its mobilization advantages.
If you watched the Opening Ceremonies of this summer’s Olympics, you learned (if you didn’t know before) that China can make a lot of people do the same thing at the same time very well. I think it’s safe to say that filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s exhibition of Chinese history and modernity will go unsurpassed for its insane production value for some time. Also safe to say, Project 119 is a success even before most of its events take place thanks to the same discipline and devotion that produced the I-can’t-say-this-enough-times-and-I-don’t-care-how-much-it-costs ridiculous Opening Ceremony.
The same can not be said for Project 40, which is coming up on its self imposed deadline. Or the entirety of American soccer development for that matter. Should we dump it along with Olympic soccer? Why haven’t American soccer’s initiatives had similar success to China’s 119? Could American soccer learn something from the Chinese?
American soccer is but a blip on the athletically packed radar of the nation at large. USSF and MLS are wealthy but still just independent organizations. Project 40/Generation Adidas gives service to but a handful of kids every year. At present we have a loose-knit framework set up for countrywide development. Truly intense schooling is the rarest of exceptions, not the rule. To the Chinese the Olympics mean, well, a bit more. Project 119 calls upon 1.3 billion people. The government scoops up toddlers with the slightest inkling of talent and places them in intense professional development. Like East Germany before the Wall fell, China is taking to burgeoning its Olympic dreams like most countries take to building a military, something you would think the mighty USofA would know a little something about. But as with a soccer stars in the sporting culture, this kind of development intensity is rare bird in U.S. It’s hard to believe the U.S. could or would ever do something so systematically. You will never see an opening ceremony like Beijing’s on U.S. soil.
No one in their right mind thinks the US MNT is going to win the World Cup in 2010, giving Project 40 a air of sarcasm and grandstanding in the face of what the project and U.S. development on the whole has accomplished. Now one would bet on it, but that is not to say the team can’t win an Olympics or World Cup. They can, and if and when they do, that victory will be much more enjoyable than one in which athletic factories become necessary for winning. But American soccer is up against the World in the most popular sport, a team sport on top of that, not some obscure extremely particular individual skill. For those reasons, maybe a Project 119-type soccer program could never work for soccer.
But is soccer in America really that much different than those “sports”? Michael Phelps is now more famous than any American soccer player. So maybe we need to begin treating soccer’s development like an Olympic sport, systematically building it from the bottom up, quickly and with the finest advisers the world has to offer.
Domination begins with money. The Chinese borrowed a few hundred dump trucks from their countless construction sites, filled them with coin, and set to work (allbeit in sports other than soccer). USSF and MLS in comparison are flipping through their wallets with unknown amounts in the bank. One could argue that given the few resources USSF and MLS have, they have made enormous strides. That’s the infrastructure, then there is the athletes. Michael Phelps aside, in the U.S. there is little to gain from most Olympic pursuits. Maybe you get a sponsorship, a Wheaties box, a commercial or two. Mostly you have that old Olympic standby: pride. You have it forever, but it does little but tug on the ears of grandchildren as you grow old. You will surely find interest, but not the kind you can spend. Outside of Forrest Gump, name one table tennis star. Badminton? Kayaking? Soccer? Aside from the rare few, most American soccer players like Olympians (and some of them are Olympians) aren’t going to see a windfall of riches from their athletic pursuits.
In China, these obscure athletes are taken in and taken care of, and if TV broadcasters are to be believed that development environment makes USSF’s soccer academy in Bradenton, Florida, look like a party school. Did you see the female Chinese Olympic gymnastic captain prepare herself for the vault? A No Limit Soldier that one. They are famous national heroes, but are the Chinese athletes happy? Do they lead healthy lives, or are the tears they shed upon Olympic defeat a microcosm of their lives?
Nobody can answer that but the athletes. We barely know how they live. Like Hollywood stars? Prisoners? Whatever that answer they appear so single minded in their pursuits that any and all mystery only increases the discipline and furthers their athletic success. Sure we get Benny Feilhaber lip synching to his favorite pop songs, and that’s great–it really is, that kind of access and intimacy from professional athletes–but discipline and success are two things rarely used in descriptions of American soccer–and two things that were clearly deficient during the U.S. Olympic soccer team’s performances this year.
But does the choice have to be between a quickly built militaristic monopoly or the long unmanageable climb through a democratic culture of choice, where things above all are supposed to be fun? Can not there be a happy medium? Is that happy medium multiplying residence academies and increasing wages and star power and creative coaches and playing fields enough to lure young players away form other sports, the extreme being some sort of USA Premiere League? Too crazy to think about? What If MLS bought some land and built a nice field in the middle of Manhattan, an MSG for soccer–would people flock? Is spend spend spend the only way to go about it besides indoctrination? Even if they did open the vault, you have to wonder whether all the money in the world could ever bring the American masses to this–as my high school PE teacher/football, baseball coach called it–communist sport?
2010 is almost here. World Cup qualifying picks up this week. American soccer needs to begin asking these questions. By 2011 the World Cup will be past and a new collective bargaining agreement between MLS and its players union should be in place. The second decade of the new millennium could be soccer’s Y2K. Those with knowledge and power should be already examining the future potential of the old machines to ensure their potential for growth. After all, moral victories are a thing of the past. With a new bargaining agreement likely to give more resources to MLS teams, coaches, and players in 2010, and with USSF set to bid on the 2018 World Cup, the turn of the decade will prove to be an important one for soccer in this country. How MLS and USSF set the table will mean everything for American soccer’s next generation. Will it stay with the Project 40 and national networks or could a large-scale mobilization be necessary to secure those grandiose goals?
banner photo of a man playing table tennis in the park in Beijing from Associated Press via Daily Life