Johnette Howard

SYDNEY, Australia—We’ve just passed Day 3 of the Sydney Summer Olympics, and I think we immediately need to start an office pool here at the Main Press Center, the gathering place where I and a few thousand other journalists return like swallows after seeing six events a day to fire a few thousand words into print and then kick back and think deep thoughts like: “If I had carpal tunnel syndrome, would I know it?” I’ve also decided on our office poll theme: Pick the most anti-Olympian personality at these Games. Already we have no shortage of candidates.

The idea hit me about 24 hours ago, right about the time the Romanian weightlifting team—that’s right, the  entire team—was told to go home after a third member of the squad bombed a drug test. About a week earlier, the Chinese Olympic committee held back 27 athletes from even coming to the Games when Olympic officials’$2 11th-hour decision to use a new blood test that can detect the performance-enhancing drug EPO started snagging victims.

But drug cheats are so de rigueur now at the modern Olympics that they’ve begun to induce yawns. To win this pool, it’s going to require plunking down five bucks on a threat like Tommy Lasorda, the voluble former L.A. Dodgers manager who’s now managing the American Olympic baseball team. In the true spirit of international brotherhood and peace, Lasorda landed in Sydney and promptly declared he wanted to beat the brains out of the gold-medal favorite Cuban baseball team, Fidel Castro’s pride and joy, as a gift to all the Cubans in Miami. (Memo to Tommy: While you were thinking up a new bunt sign, the Cold War ended, baby. We won!)

If betting on Lasorda doesn’t float your boat, how about any of the Dream Teamers? How about five bucks on Anwar Choudry, the reigning chief of the corruption-riven amateur boxing federation. He recently admitted that at least one fight was “fixed” at last year’s world championships but then scoffed at an Australian Olympic official’s warning that it could happen again here. How about five bucks on a dark horse like paranormalist Uri Geller, who isn’t even at these Games but who said from his home in Pot-Pie-on-the-Thames (or wherever he lives in England) that he was responsible for the way the just-lit Olympic cauldron got stuck for three excruciating minutes during Friday’s opening ceremonies.

Right-o, Uri. Now take your medicine.

If none of them sound like your pool winner, how about taking a flyer on Marcelo Rios, the Chilean tennis star who wanted to refuse the honor of carrying his nation’s flag during opening ceremonies because his mother and wife didn’t get free tickets? There’s Gustavo Keurten, who’s normally a nice guy but who said he wasn’t coming to the Olympics until Brazilian officials said he could compete in the clothing line he endorses.    

But leave Jeff Tarango alone. He’s mine.

Tarango is the oldest man to represent the United States in Olympic tennis since 32-year-old Richard Norris Williams played in the 1924 Games; and to me, anyway, the good karma in that factoid is too amazing too ignore. Williams is also famous for surviving the sinking of the Titanic while Tarango is a threat to wreak disaster wherever he shows up. Wimbledon especially brings out the beast in him.

In 1995, Tarango accused French chair umpire Bruno Rebeuh of bias while he worked Tarango’s match, then looked on later as his wife, Benedicte, slapped Rebeuh’s face when their paths crossed on the All-England Club grounds. At this year’s tournament, Tarango accused fellow American Paul Goldstein of faking a leg problem during their marathon five-set match, which Goldstein eventually won. (“Girls get cramps,” Tarango sneered, “not boys.”) Then Tarango made news again while he and Marc Rosset were losing their doubles match to Ellis Ferriera and Rick Leach. Seems Tarango dared Rosset to see how far he could hit a ball from the court they were playing on. So Rosset did. Which earned a penalty from the chair umpire. (It’s not for nothing Rosset and Tarango are partners.)

More recently, Tarango has had an ongoing beef with John McEnroe, current U.S. Davis Cup captain. It started earlier this year when McEnroe was making noise that he could still win on the men’s tennis tour, not just the senior tour he now plays. An irked Tarango said he’d put up $1 million and play McEnroe in a winner-take-all match—only to have McEnroe acidly retort that he didn’t know that a career scuffler like Tarango had a million dollars.

McEnroe was equally biting in July when told that Tarango had recently griped to reporters that he didn’t know why McEnroe wouldn’t pick him for a U.S. Davis Cup match against Spain. “Tell him to look in the mirror,” McEnroe snapped.

Saturday, referring to some of that, I asked Tarango if he thinks he’s not exactly associated with Olympic idyll, and his jaw dropped open and he said, “Why, I think I’m a model Olympian. I always play hard every match, I always play hard for my country, and I’m willing to die for my country. I don’t think everybody would say THAT.”

I’m telling you, I can’t lose.