|Wednesday, September 11
U.S. players competing abroad could be targets
By Greg Garber
NEW YORK -- When the United States Tennis Association, in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies, pulled out of last November's Fed Cup finals in Madrid, Spain, it was nearly fined by the International Tennis Federation.
The U.S. was a two-time defending champion, having won the 1999 and 2000 titles in Palo Alto, Calif., and Las Vegas. But in deference to the victims -- and the palpable fear of another act of terrorism -- the USTA declined to send its team abroad.
And now, with the passing of another year, another U.S. tennis team is scheduled to compete in Europe. The American Davis Cup team travels to Paris for its Sept. 20-22 semifinal match against France.
Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. captain, said last week that he would not be traveling with trepidation.
"No, definitely not," McEnroe said last week. "We're proud of going as a team. We're not worried about all that at all. Obviously, wearing USA on our backs makes all of us proud this year. But we're not concerned at all."
That said, there are quiet concerns as the team prepares for France.
To be an American in Paris, under normal circumstances, is cause for envy. There is the bohemian energy of the Latin Quarter, the Musee de Orsay's unparalleled impressionist art, the lush gardens and beautiful parks, most notably the glorious Seine. This year, however, the pleasure derived from sharing Paris' treasures will be tempered by a new-world pragmatism.
This is the legacy of the Sept. 11 attacks: Americans, particularly those abroad, no longer take anything for granted. Safety and security are at the top of the list.
When the 34th Ryder Cup matches were postponed in the wake of Sept. 11, they were rescheduled to Sept. 27-29 of this year. Thus, the original 2001 team will reassemble at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. According to the PGA of America, all of the American stars, from Tiger Woods to David Duval and David Toms, will be there.
Last week, another global sporting event was staged in Indianapolis. Yugoslavia's Peja Stojakovic, Argentina's Emanuel Ginobili and Spain's Juan Carlos Navarro were all featured in the World Basketball Championships. Their national federations were not afraid to send them to the United States in the post-Sept. 11 landscape.
The cozy confines of the Midwest are one thing, but Tehran, Iran, is an entirely different part of the world. That was the site of the 2002 World Freestyle Wrestling Championships on Sept. 5-7. After receiving information from government officials that there was a threat to the wrestlers' safety, USA Wrestling elected to keep the team home.
"Faced with a real and credible threat to our U.S. wrestlers and no assurances from the Iranian government of protection," said Stan Dziedzic, president of USA Wrestling, "we could not jeopardize the lives and well-being of our delegation."
A tilted axis
In recent years, there have been effort to restore the damaged relationship. After Iran elected Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, as president, officials in the administration of former President Clinton embarked on conversations with Iran. With that whiff of détente in the air, U.S. wrestlers were cleared to compete in Iran, twice in 1998 and again in 2000 and 2001. Iran's wrestlers, too, have journeyed to America on numerous occasions.
But after Sept. 11, after President George W. Bush declared that Iran -- like Iraq and its President Saddam Hussein -- was a nation that rotated on an "axis of evil," the rules changed.
On Friday, Aug. 23 -- three days before seven U.S. freestyle wrestlers and their coaches were set to leave for Germany for a few days of final training -- the U.S. State Department called USA Wrestling offices in Colorado Springs, Col. There was, the U.S. officials said, a problem. In part, the text of the faxed warning, read:
"An Iranian official has expressed his opinion that it would be 'out of our control' to protect the U.S. team from anti-American demonstrations and activities by the various Iranian groups who have recently made their anti-American and 'Death to America' sentiments pubic."
"I am devastated for our program," said Iowa State coach Bobby Douglas, head coach of the U.S. freestyle team. "I feel most sorry for the wrestlers."
Kevin Jackson, the national team coach, said he was heartbroken.
"To not have the opportunity to compete in the world championships that you train for your whole life, that's pretty devastating," Jackson said. "I honestly believe we would've been safe and welcomed by the Iranian community."
Douglas, in a letter to his wrestlers, said he thought the Americans would have won the title. This, he seemed to argue, was why they had been kept home.
"The thought of Americans winning in Iran probably made some officials very uneasy," he said.
USA Wrestling petitioned the International Wrestling Federation to postpone the event until it could guarantee a safe site, but the request was denied. The year before, in the wake of Sept. 11, the world championships had been moved from New York to Greece and Bulgaria.
The next chance for the U.S. freestyle team will be at next year's world championships. It is scheduled, in a back to the future way, for New York City.
Less than 'life and death'
At no point did Strange sound nervous about the event, noting that the team already would be in Europe the week before. Eleven of his 12 players are scheduled to compete in the American Express Championship in Ireland; Hal Sutton, whose world ranking didn't qualify him, is the only American Ryder Cup player not in the field.
It was a year ago, when the PGA Tour was in suburban Pittsburgh, that the 2001 Ryder Cup matches were postponed. Strange and several other Ryder Cup players stood on the grounds of the Laurel Valley Golf Club, painfully aware that precisely one week earlier United Airlines Flight 93 had gone down 15 miles away in Shanksville, Pa.
"Travel is part of our life," explained Jim Furyk. "There may be a few players that aren't at this tournament that are probably a little nervous about getting on an airplane."
According to Strange, who played in the Pennsylvania Classic that week, the decision was driven more by a respect for the lives lost than security issues.
"It was a decision by The PGA of America to do what was right and appropriate," Strange said. "Security was an issue, but just a concern. It was not a large part of the decision, but it was part of the decision. Most of it was just to do what you think is right, and I think they did that.
"Everything was going to be beefed up, but you have to remember that this disaster last Tuesday happened in the U.S., so we have to start our travels in the U.S., so security was a concern from the time you leave your house. It's been proven that can happen anywhere in the world."
A year later, there is far less buzz about the Ryder Cup. And, according to Tiger Woods, there will be a less sanguine atmosphere at The Belfry, at least as far as the players go.
"I think we all understood that the Ryder Cup might have been going a little too far over the edge. It's not a blood bath," Woods said. "I think we as players, the media and the fans, we all lost sight of that. It's terrible to say, but Sept. 11 reminded us all of that. It's sad to say that it takes something like that to remind us that it is just a sport.
"I think the matches will be conducted in the fashion that it was designed, and that is a competitive atmosphere. But it is a gentlemanly sport. We are going to enjoy it, but it's not going to be the same. It's not going over the top. We'll understand it's not life or death."
Said Strange back in August, "Everything is different this year because of the delay. We knew something was going to be different. I think leading up to the matches, we're going to remember why we're a year late. I hope we do. We should never forget why we're playing this year."
"We had to make certain whether it was just heightened sensitivity there was because we were Americans or, really, a real and credible threat," he said from his Atlanta office. "All of our information suggested it was very, very real."
The International Wrestling Federation may have turned down USA Wrestling's request to move the championship from Tehran, but later this month the federation will consider the long-term ramifications at its annual meeting in Moscow.
As it turns out, the U.S. Greco-Roman team will be in Moscow, too. And, in the first week of November, the women's national team will compete in Halkida, Greece -- a city with a name that, in today's terror-tinged world, sounds eerily ominous.
"We'd like them to be more vigilant in assigning world championships," Dziedzic said. "We'd like to see them at neutral sites that pose the least amount of risk. I think we've succeeded in taking this from an agenda item to an issue with heightened sensitivity."
Dziedzic mentioned Poland, Germany and historically neutral Switzerland as possible sites for future championships. Last week, he said the episode had been long and difficult.
"All of this concerns me greatly," he said. "There are so many questions. Are we safe in Greece (for the Summer Olympics) in 2004? Are there security measures in place?
"Listen, I don't want to see us as pawns or targets where we're taken out of the competitive arena. But we don't want to our athletes to be placed in harm's way, either.
"That's the dilemma."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com