DECLINE OF A SPORTING EMPIRE

Teams are no longer in awe of the U.S. and have found their own strut as STANDARDS have risen in foreign leagues. Confidence does not have borders, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

When America staggered and limped out of the Ryder Cup last month, its golfers dominated by a well-knit European team, no eyebrows twitched. Surprise has been long dead. Not merely because the U.S. has lacked a spark in Ryder Cups this century, but because in the larger picture U.S. sporting teams no longer carry the wondrous heft and reputation that allowed them to dominate the world.

Take a peek at a new world:

America, which once dominated the Davis Cup, hasn't won it since 1995. Legend has it that Pete Sampras, having vomited his way to three wins, away, on clay, in that 1995 final to beat Russia, came home and found no one interested and said to hell with Davis Cup.

The U.S. women's basketball team lost in the semi-finals of this year's world championship. It was the first time they had been defeated before the finals since 1994.

The U.S. men's 1992 basketball dream team of Jordan, Bird, Magic suggested only God and Moses could beat them. Yet subsequent teams (from the finest league in the world) failed to win the 2002 world championship, 2004 Olympics and recently were upset by Greece in the 2006 world champ.

In a more individual sport, for the first time all four boxing heavyweight titles belong not to Americans but athletes from the former USSR.

The U.S. hasn't won an ice-hockey world championship since 1960.

Forget making the second round, the U.S. football team failed to win a match at this year's World Cup, finishing at the bottom of the table in their group, which included Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana.

In track and field, the total gold medals won by the U.S. at the Olympics has declined from 16 in 1984 (albeit a boycott year) to 8 in 2004. In between it read 13 (1988), 12 (1992), 13 (1996) and 10 (2000).

This year at the World Baseball Classic, the U.S. did not even make the finals and was bundled out by Mexico.

It's strange. In a country so obsessed now with patriotism, with a president always painting us-versus-them scenarios, and pundits hurling epithets of un- and anti-American at one another, it's paradoxical that in sport playing for the USA counts less than turning out for the city-based Dodgers or Lakers.

The idea of mateship in the broader Australian society may be under scrutiny, but in sport at least it still flourishes, a brotherhood of men bonded and lifted by a common cause. It is one reason why they produce sterling teams. In the U.S., in contrast, it seems individual drive and invention is prized more highly, a sort of who has the bigger contract, Humvee and ego.

The world is scrounging for reasons to explain this fall of a great sporting civilisation. Perhaps, of course, it is not so much a fall as a stagnancy, a nation standing still as the world has raised its game. Teams are no longer in awe of the U.S. teams and have found their own strut as standards have risen in foreign leagues. Confidence does not have borders.

What was enlightening after the Ryder Cup, where U.S. supremacy had been bruised again, was the constant refrain from European golfers, hey, wise up, don't be surprised, our European Tour has a pretty good standard. Respect us, was the call. The USPGA golf tour is the best. American golfers do dominate the top five rankings and have a firm grip on the majors. But it is their arrogance (golf begins and ends in the U.S.) that infuriates Europe. Beware a team out to prove a point.

It's sometimes easier to release the adrenaline, or stir an athlete's fury, by creating a dislike (sometimes even artificial) of an opponent, and Americans, because they won so readily and often in all sport, because they almost considered winning as their birthright, because they were so wondrously gifted, because they are a superpower, make for easy (and sometimes convenient) targets.

Domination often has a tendency to ruffle feathers, it makes opponents feel inferior, it strips them of self-esteem month after month. This itself takes some swallowing. But what is harder to digest is when the dominator rubs it in, like the unbecoming swagger of the U.S. track relay team at the 2000 Olympics.

Australia, for instance, are an extraordinary sporting nation, and despite a rough-and-tumble physical style, there is a spirit and camaraderie about their teams, which is appealing. Except the cricket team. It is a compelling collection of skilful players, but it is also a team that lacks couth and wears conceit. Predictably, celebrations following Australia's Ashes loss were not limited to Europe.

Similarly, the demise of many U.S. sporting dynasties has not been lamented abroad for it was felt a comeuppance was due. Watching the U.S. basketballers at the Olympics, for instance, was a thrilling introduction to aerial adventures, but they also wore an eventually tiresome cockiness.

For the U.S. to throw together a few league superstars and say forget tactics, go play, as if the world is going to tremble, is no longer workable. Yet at this basketball world championships they tried it again. And failed. Foreign stars have learnt from their American peers in the NBA; now the U.S. NBA stars must learn (teamwork) from the visitors. To not do so would be arrogant.