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We're only XII days removed from the start of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, we've just finished stage XIX of Tour de France number XCV, and here I come with Volume XIX of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America... and I'd like to kick this off with some interesting Olympic thoughts as we draw nearer to Beijing.


Earlier this summer, American fans were treated for the first time to live coverage of the European Championships, Euro 2008 as it was affectionately known, getting a glimpse of the tournament which grips Europe quadrennially in the even years opposite the World Cup. Falling in the same year as the Olympics every time it is held, it affords an interesting look at two different schools of thought pertaining to national-team competitions. Of whom do I speak? Great Britain...


While it didn't really matter this year -- Croatia and Russia qualified ahead of England; Germany and the Czech Republic qualified ahead of Wales; Spain and Sweden qualified ahead of Norther Ireland; and Italy and France advanced ahead of Scotland -- the fact remains that, when it comes to soccer, the United Kingdom is anything BUT united. In the birthplace of soccer, the rivalries are passionate, timeless and unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.


The problem falls when it comes to the Olympics. You see, when it comes to archery or badminton or even track and field, Great Britain has no problem uniting under the Union Jack every four years to compete for Olympic gold, silver and bronze. Yet one team which has not and may NEVER come around to the idea is the soccer team. 2012 London Olympic Organizing Committe chairman Sebastian Coe has tipped Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United as the perfect candidate to coach a unified British team for the Olympics. The opportunity of a lifetime, right? Coaching the team of the host nation at the Olympics?


Hardly... Ferguson sounded repulsed about the notion, as though someone had tinkled in his fish and chips. "I would not in any way, shape or form try to commit myself to anything like that. I'm not sure they'd allow it. Countries have their own identity, their own patriotism," Ferguson said in Johannesberg, South Africa, as Manchester United played in a preseason tournament. "It would be impractical: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, even England, they all have their own identities, so I don't think it is a starter."


The Olympics are a time for nations to come together in a peaceful athletic pursuit, an effort to go beyond ideology to meet on common ground. But for one tiny island getting sloshed about in the Atlantic chop, deep-rooted enmities mean more than laudable pursuits. It is indeed sad to hear that too many people are opposed to such an idea -- the opportunity to blend the talents of four talent-rich countries into one super-team is something to make a sports fan salivate...


We have more doping news on the horizon... and this time it DOESN'T come from the Tour de France! In advance of the Games in Beijing, the World Anti-Doping Agency is elevating its efforts. United States swimmer Jessica Hardy tested positive for banned steroid clenbuterol at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha earlier this month. Hardy was tested three times during the trials... the first and third tests turned up negative, the second positive for the banned substance. She asserts her innocence, and is frantically appealing for reinstatement before the Olympic swimming events kick off on August 8. It is highly unlikely that the 21-year-old will line up for either the 100 breaststroke or the 50 freestyle in Beijing... what is funny about the whole thing is that the positive test came after she raced the 100 freestyle in Omaha, an event in which she FAILED to qualify for the Olympics...


But we must remain skeptical. If the public is quick to jump down the throats of cyclists when a positive test emerges, and I am to council patience until all the facts emerge and to ridicule the cyclist but not cycling, we then must afford this swimmer and the sport of swimming in general the benefit of the doubt. In this hyper-tested sports world, a lot is unrecognizable for American sports fans. This isn't the land of Winstrol and greenies anymore, kids. This is a land where EPO and CERA reign supreme, where a cornucopia of steroids and growth hormones are as popular as amphetamines and cocaine and any other uppers attainable... and where the daily improvement in testing is increasingly making doping too dangerous to be reasonable.


It is possible that Hardy IS completely innocent, that the test was a mere flaw... but A and B samples are required under all Olympic events, and neither failed in this instance. This is a lot like when Floyd Landis tested positive in the 2006 Tour... he was tested several times during the race, but only tested positive once -- but that was on the stage where he resurrected his chances to ultimately take yellow. Hardy may have lost, but if she tried to artificially win en route to that loss then she deserves to lose far more than a shot at going to Beijing in THREE events instead of TWO... America will be better represented for the decreased suspicion. Clean sport IS a meaningful goal, and while the names and faces change we can take solace in the fact that the sports themselves are increasingly working to keep themselves clean and legitimate...


And on that note, get yourselves ready for the Olympics... we're less than TWO WEEKS away! The Tour de France winds up tomorrow and Sunday... keep up with the action here. No matter what your thrill, keep your eyes out on that wide wide world of sports, everyone...


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