ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
In Beijing today, two of America's most successful women's teams played for gold. And when it was over, there was celebration on the soccer field and shock on the softball diamond.
NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN: The problem with winning every Olympic softball game since September of 2000 is that people tend to assume you'll keep it up forever. Certainly, the U.S. team and China did nothing to discourage that line of thought. Heading into the gold medal game against Japan, the Americans were undefeated and had outscored their opponents 57 runs to two.
Favorites? Please. How about awarding the gold medals before the final game and then playing just because those nice people in the stand showed up? Well, there's this old sports cliche people tried out when Goliath falls, it's why they play the game.
(Soundbite of cheering)
GOLDMAN: In the bottom of the seventh inning, American Caitlin Lowe slapped a ground ball to third base, got thrown out at first, and Goliath fell. Final score: Japan 3, U.S. 1. Veteran American catcher Stacey Nuveman provided the quick analysis.
Ms. STACEY NUVEMAN (U.S. Women's Softball Team): The bottom line is they played better ball than we did today. We made some errors at the end as well, and they deserved to win.
GOLDMAN: Nuveman's infield fly out in the bottom of the sixth inning with the bases loaded was just one of the blown chances by the U.S. Uncharacteristically, the Americans failed to hit when they had to. They had defensive lapses and they got out-pitched by the Japanese iron woman, Yukiko Ueno.
The day before the final, Ueno pitched 21 innings, that's three complete games, to help Japan qualify for the final. Then, in the gold medal game, she shut down the U.S., except for a 4th inning homerun by power hitter and plain talker Crystl Bustos.
Ms. CRYSTL BUSTOS (U.S. Women's Softball Team): She threw good, you know? I don't know what happened. I - I'm not every hitter, so I know at the plate we struggled. You know, our pitching wasn't quite on point like it used to be. But you know what, we came out here, we gave it everything we had left.
GOLDMAN: There was a weird undercurrent to this game. It may have been the last in the Olympics because of the 2005 decision by the International Olympic Committee to leave softball off the program at the next summer games in 2012. It said one of the reasons for softball's expulsion was U.S. dominance. Americans had won every Olympic competition since softball was first played at the 1996 games.
But still, the U.S. kept insisting there were other really good teams out there. Last night, American head coach Mike Candrea sounded strangely relieved that Japan had proved the U.S. right.
Mr. MIKE CANDREA (Head coach, U.S. Women's Softball Team): I really kind of feel that maybe people will get off our back and realize that there is some parity in this game because I've always felt that the rest of the world is getting better.
GOLDMAN: It's not clear whether that's enough to convince the IOC to reinstate softball for 2016. At least five U.S. players won't wait around to find out. After the game, they walked to home plate and placed their cleats in the dirt, a symbol of their careers being over, and perhaps Olympic softball, as well.
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GOLDMAN: A much happier scene took place later Thursday at Worker's Stadium in Beijing. The U.S. women's soccer team won the gold medal, beating rival Brazil one to nothing. American midfielder Carli Lloyd sent a left-footed kick into the Brazilian net six minutes into extra time.
U.S. defenders turned back relentless attacks by Brazil, with American goalkeeper Hope Solo making a number of brilliant saves. It was the second straight Olympic gold medal for the U.S., which won the tournament without its injured star forward Abby Wambach.
Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing.