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Associated Press/Photo by Michael Probst

Sprint, swim, swing

Sports | A triad of upsets breathes new competitive life into three once-dominated sports

Issue: "Warrior class," Aug. 28, 2010

Three dominant athletes. Three different sports. Three surprising results. Fans of the underdog must have relished August's first full weekend when sprinter Usain Bolt, swimmer Michael Phelps, and golfer Tiger Woods all proved human.

For Bolt, the defeat came on the track at Olympic Stadium in Stockholm, where American Tyson Gay beat him out of the blocks and pulled away for a commanding victory. The mid-race surge 100-meter fans have come to expect from the world-record holder never materialized. The typically relaxed Bolt appeared strained as he fell further behind to finish a distant second in a time of 9.97 seconds. Gay ran 9.84, good enough to end Bolt's remarkable streak of 14 consecutive victories.

For Phelps, the loss began to appear imminent during the final turn of the 200-meter individual medley at the national championships in Irvine, Calif. It's a race the 14-time Olympic gold medal winner has won 38 consecutive times in major competitions. But teammate and friend Ryan Lochte beat Phelps at his own game, extending to an insurmountable lead with a powerful underwater turn as the swimmers embarked on their final length of the pool.

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For Woods, the demoralizing weekend culminated Sunday at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational with a final-round 77 that left him 18 over par for the tournament, second to last of the 79 finishing competitors. It was the worst performance of his career and among the worst ever for a player ranked No. 1 in the world. Woods had won on his previous four visits to the Firestone Country Club, a venue where he had collected seven victories in 11 tries and never finished worse than fourth.

All three stars said afterward that they planned to regroup, to return to basics, to train harder. But the results of the weekend could prove more costly than a single defeat. For Bolt, Phelps, and Woods, the mystique of dominance provides great advantage each time they enter a competition. Their presence alone is enough to provoke competitive swoons from many opponents. Might that now change?

Gay called his victory "important for the sport." The same might be said for the defeats of Phelps and Woods. Whether such losses trigger more competitive rivalries or inspire the three most dominant living athletes to recapture their form, the surprising weekend will go down as the beginning of new chapters of sprints, swims, and swings.

Dropping the ball

Among this year's celebrated inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a class that includes all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith and defensive sack specialist John Randle, one name stands out-Jerry Rice. Widely considered the greatest receiver of all time, Rice holds every significant record for his position, including catches (1,549), yards (22,895), touchdowns (208), and consecutive games with a catch (274). No other receiver has even approached such numbers.

At his induction speech, the longtime San Francisco 49er was a gracious honoree, thanking teammates, coaches, fans, family, and God. He appeared stately, even classy, and was celebrated as such in countless columns and blogs.

But for all his greatness on the field, Rice has not been great off it. His wife filed for divorce in 2007 amid rumors of ongoing infidelity. Rice has admitted to fathering a child with a woman other than his wife in 2002. He was caught by police in a California brothel in 1998. And the seemingly friendly athlete was anything but in his 2007 autobiography, a self-congratulatory tome in which Rice skewered many former and active players for their shortcomings.

As is all too often the case, fans and media members have mistaken athletic prowess for personal greatness.

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