Wednesday May 28th, 2008

I was certain Danica Patrick was going to win the Indianapolis 500 Sunday. Just positive. After all, this 2008 is a year, when, surely, women have been more prominent in sports than ever before -- and in every way: good, bad and sad.

Danica herself, of course, had already become the first woman to win an open wheel race, which must have astonished the fatuous Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula One racing, who had declared earlier that "women should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances."

Justine Henin and Annika Sorenstam made headlines for retiring prematurely, but there are big headline names still playing in their sports. Lorena Ochoa -- not Tiger -- is the most dominant force in golf in 2008. As the French Open moves along, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have not only risen again to the top, but they're both glamorous global celebrities who make the mainstream columns -- Maria for her elegant beauty, Serena for her, uh, exotic attire. OMG, OMG -- what's that she's wearing today!!??

Of course, a lot of women in sport are upset about that sort of thing, that too much attention is still paid to the way women athletes look and dress, but the reality -- fair or not -- is that culture pays more attention to female appearance. To pretend to avoid that fact in sport is ridiculous. As Danica Patrick told me about posing sexily for a man's magazine: "It didn't change my talent. It didn't make me any less of a driver." It did make her more famous.

Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks scored 34 points in her debut in the WNBA. When was the last time an NBA rookie started off like that? And hey, what's become the meanest rivalry in sport? Red Sox-Yankees? Fuhgetabboutit. It's women's basketball -- Pat Summitt of Tennessee and Geno Auriemma of Connecticut. OK, Geno is a man. Technicality. He's a women's coach. Summitt has already called off their regular-season series, so if UT and UConn face each other in the NCAA championship next year, that would be a real grudge match and the biggest women's game in history, in any sport and a lot more interesting than anything the men could put up in their Final Four.

It was the death of the filly Eight Belles -- not the colt Barbaro -- that has really caused the most searching look at the way horse racing is conducted. And I think that the imprisonment of Marion Jones is as tragic as any in the sports realm of oh-how-the-mighty-have-fallen. Somehow, her disgrace is more poignant than the sagas of Shoeless Joe or Pete Rose or Mike Tyson. There was something so classically, sadly representative of all those feminine dramas of lore: the beautiful and talented and ambitious woman who picks all the wrong men ... or, has all the wrong men pick her.

And then, back to Danica, because after the positively cataclysmic results of last week, she didn't have to be the standard-bearer for womanhood and beat the men at Indy, because on "Dancing With The Stars," Kristi Yamaguchi was a rare female winner, upsetting the top male athlete, that handsome NFL hunk, Jason Taylor.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it: how could Hillary lose in 2008?

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