ATLANTA -- The Centennial Olympic Games were all about women in sport, from the dramatic performance of tiny gymnast Kerri Strug, to the record crowd of 76,481 that attended the women's soccer final, and yesterday to the roof-raising gold medal performance of the U.S. women's basketball team.
Male track stars Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson may have dominated the headlines for a few days, but the XXVI Olympiad featured more female athletes than ever before, and featured more American achievements by female athletes than come easily to memory. It started with the four-medal performances of swimmers Amy Van Dyken and Angel Martino and ended with last night's exciting 111-87 victory over Brazil.
In between, the stories got better and better. Strug landing on a sprained ankle to help the U.S. women win gold in gymnastics. French runner Marie-Jose Perec beating Johnson to the punch with double gold in the 200 and 400 meters. The U.S. women's softball team. The largest crowd ever to attend a women's sporting event -- to see the American women win the gold in soccer.
Now this, perhaps the most significant event in terms of impact on a particular sport. The women's basketball competition was a prelude to the debuts of two professional leagues in the United States. The odds against the leagues are long, but one has the blessing and backing of the NBA and the other has commitments from nine of the Olympic gold medalists.
The U.S. national team fulfilled its year-long quest last night by upstaging the Dream Team with a spirited performance that had the crowd of 32,997 dancing in the aisles. The women's final was everything the men's wasn't -- exciting, uplifting and overpowering -- and it completed a 60-0 run for the touring U.S. team.
Towering Lisa Leslie scored 29 points and grabbed six rebounds as the United States and Brazil combined for the most points ever scored in a women's gold-medal basketball final. Three other Americans finished in double figures and every U.S. player scored to prove America's first national team experiment a rousing success.
"I'm just really happy for this team," said coach Tara Vanderveer. "These are women who worked really hard. We were on a mission all year. They took care of business. I am really proud of them."
There was a banner at court level that read: "The real Dream Team," and who could argue? The Americans did not miss a shot for the first six minutes of play and never trailed after Brazil's Marta Sobral opened the record night of scoring with a free throw.
The lead was 11 points at the half, but a 12-0 run early in the second half assured that the U.S. team would fulfill its hoop dream and -- in doing so -- give a raucous send-off to the players.
"It was very emotional for me," Leslie said. "I'm a very emotional person, and we just accomplished all that we set out to do. I'm just very happy we have done everything we wanted to do."
Guard Teresa Edwards, 32, and playing in her third Olympics, scored nine points and had 10 assists on the way to the gold medal that had eluded her at the 1988 and the 1992 Games.
Despite the lopsided score, the Brazilian team was no pushover. Guard Janeth Arcain scored 24 points and Sobral added 19 as the silver medalists pushed the Americans throughout the first half. The U.S. team led almost from the start, but had to shoot 78 percent from the field to establish the double-digit lead by intermission.
The Brazilian team was known for its perimeter shooting, but the U.S. team adjusted on defense and forced the game inside. That strategy appeared to backfire in the first half, when Brazil slipped in for layup after easy layup, but the one-sided outcome vindicated that defensive approach.
"I think it was a challenge to our perimeter players," said Nikki McCray. "Back in 1994, their perimeter game destroyed our team. It had been something we were definitely looking forward to."
The mood was so festive that the U.S. women's soccer team, fresh from its gold-medal victory over China, was doing a near-choreographed version of "The Macarena" during the break.
"It was a great way to go out," said Katrina McClain. "We out-ran them. We out-hustled them. They couldn't keep up with us. The crowd played a very important part in it. The crowd was excellent."
The attendance was impressive, but it was not a record. The U.S. team drew a crowd of 33,952 last week that was the largest crowd in history to see a women's basketball game.
Pub Date: 8/05/96