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Saturday, June 14, 2008

American Becky Hammon plays for Team Russia

This is not your father's Olympics. Nor is it your father's world. Nothing more drives that point home in sports than the fact that Becky Hammon will be competing for Russia in this summer's Olympics.

That's right. Becky Hammon, the WNBA point guard from America's heartland, is going to march into National Stadium in Beijing under a Russian flag, wearing a Russian uniform. And perhaps the biggest irony of all is that Russia, a country that for years represented the antithesis of a free market, bought her services - fast tracking her to Russian citizenship after she signed a four-year contract for more than $2 million to play for CSKA, a Russian professional team, last winter.

Though Hammon received her citizenship several months ago, it wasn't until recently with the start of the WNBA season and the Summer Olympics approaching that her decision received a lot of attention. Suddenly, everywhere her San Antonio team goes, she is being asked about her decision.

Is Becky Hammon a traitor?

Or is the former Liberty point guard simply a savvy capitalist, trying to make the most of her opportunities in a global economy?

Your answer to this has as much to do with your age as it does your politics.

That's because the Olympic plot line, like the world, used to be so simple. For years, it was the United States versus the Soviet bloc, freedom versus Big Brother, capitalism versus a state-run economy, good guys versus bad guys.

The Olympics never would have become the television spectacle it is today without the Cold War as a backdrop. Without it, we wouldn't have had some of sports' most dramatic moments. Would the "Miracle on Ice" be anything more than a big win? Would the Soviet basketball team have taken the gold from the Americans in Munich? Would television announcers have spent so much time talking about which gymnastics and skating judges were from Soviet bloc countries and debating how it impacted their scoring?

Yet to most of today's athletes, this is ancient history. Hammon wasn't even a year old when the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union at Lake Placid in 1980. She was 12 years old when the Berlin Wall came down. Hammon's Russia is about as far away from a communist country as one can get: Forbes magazine recently estimated that there are 33 billionaires in Moscow, more than any other city in the world including New York, which has only 31.

This is not the Russia many Americans grew up cheering against.

For years, Americans have played for other teams. Usually, the vehicle for participation is some sort of family tie. More than half of the Greek Olympic softball players in 2004 were Americans, who met the requirement of having at least one great-grandparent from Greece, which had never previously fielded a softball team in international competition.

Hammon has no Russian ancestry and had never been to the country before signing a contract to play professionally there. Yet under Russian rules, a player who has not played for another country internationally can become a naturalized citizen and then play for the Olympic team.

And that's what Hammon, who finished second in the 2007 MVP voting, decided to do after she was not one of the first 23 players invited to contend for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. She decided she was going to go where she was wanted.

"I didn't say no to USA Basketball," Hammon recently told the Houston Chronicle. "The option for me to play for USA Basketball really wasn't an option ... I don't think people would be as upset if I was playing for Switzerland. God loves Russia just as much as God loves America."

It's an idea we are all getting used to.

http://www.newsday.com/services/newspaper/printedition/wednesday/sports/ny-spbarb115722284jun11,0,620613.story

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