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WASHINGTON - Americans love to quote athletes, especially players and coaches from the leading team sports of baseball, football and basketball. In American folklore athletes have inherited the role of worn-out masters of irony from the first half of the 20th century, from Groucho Marx's league.

Nowadays, sometimes with a measure of justification, supreme wisdom is attributed to sports heroes like Yogi Berra and Vince Lombardi and more recently, Charles Barkley, the basketball player who noticed the reversal of the old, familiar order: "The best golfer is black (Tiger Woods), the most successful rapper is white (Eminem), the tallest basketball player is Chinese (Yao Ming) and the Germans are against war." The world's gone crazy.

Last weekend the deputy American ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Williamson, added another punch line to the Barkley list and won a round of applause during a speech to the American-Jewish Committee's annual conference in Washington. He said: "And the French - the French! - call Americans arrogant." The French are now hated by the masses and have quickly become the laughing stock of America because of their stubborn, self-righteous and economically suspect objections to George Bush's war on Iraq.

The story of the new American attitude to the French is instructive because of the dramatic change. Every American schoolchild learns about the founding father's gratitude to the French for their response to the call for help against the British in their War of Independence. Lafayette, DuPont, L'Enfant - the names are inscribed in the history of the United States and in its capital. For 226 years, France was the young love of America, beloved even as it aged and grew distant. And in the 227th year, love turned to hatred.

It can happen in relations between countries, even between France and Israel, but for the Americans it is quite rare. An engraving is not easy to erase. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, terrorism, and the war in Iraq changed the picture. Countries that belonged to the rival camp, like Bulgaria, Kazakhstan and especially Spain and Poland, have become the darlings of the administration and the audience.

France has fallen from the heights to the depths because of the last quarter's results. As on Wall St. and in Hollywood, the White House and Congress, and above all the public, don't believe in useless nostalgia. The criteria are as chilly as the political corpses of Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr. - "Don't sell me the barren past; what have you done for me lately?"

The latest victim of this cruel system which lifts someone from the garbage to dizzying heights and then smashes to the ground those who aren't prepared to glide comfortably down, is Michael Jordan, the most highly regarded athlete ever.

When the owners of the Washington Wizards decided to retract their decision to name Jordan president of basketball operations for the team when he retired from active play, it shoved aside everything else from the Washington press' headlines, including Iraq and the road map.

Jordan failed at his task - he did not get the Wizards into the playoffs. The investment in him didn't pay off, and he was thrown out with a rude, amazing thump, as if someone had pulled down his statute in Chicago.

Coincidentally, the smasher of the idol was Jewish businessman Abe Polin, who next week, in the same stadium Jordan left so angrily, will be hosting Ariel Sharon. Sharon knows the moral of the story. He was received with polite correctness when he was defense minister, and with a half-boycott when the Kahan Commission report was carved into his forehead, and then respectfully as prime minister during a friendly president's administration. And the wheel has still not stopped turning.

The political game that was opened when Bush whistled was not basketball played against the clock, but baseball - at least nine innings - in which each side has a role. If the Palestinians deliver what Bush is demanding, it will become Sharon's turn to deliver.