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A Brief History of Olympic Basketball

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James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891, coming up with 13 rules in a small gym in Springfield, MA. He didn't imagine what was about to happen. The only reason he was Kansas' first ever men's basketball coach was simply because he was in fact a phys-ed teacher. And he didn't even bat an eye when the sport grew to the point where competition could be held.

In 1904, the new International Olympic Committee took notice, and for the 3rd Olympic Games in St. Louis, the IOC invited five amateur teams from across the United States to compete in the "World Basketball Championship", a two day exhibition to compliment the Games. While no medals were on the line and the competition was simply to promote the sport to a worldwide audience, the anticipation was merciless. The Buffalo Germans YMCA, from New York, entered as heavy favorites. Formed just a few years before, the Germans quickly became the Harlem Globetrotters of basketball's infancy, taking the 1901 Pan-American Expo tournament in their own backyard, and when the IOC invited the AAU to form a tournament for 1904, Buffalo quickly entered, and dominated against three other teams to take the Olympic competition.

The IOC, however, had other things on their mind, plus no international governing body was established yet. That would not happen until the International Basketball Federation, or FIBA, was introduced in 1932. They were given the task of organizing an official basketball tournament for the Olympics. FIBA chose outdoor games for the 1936 Berlin Games, which turned out to be a huge disaster. The first tournament was a 23-nation free for all. The early phases were double-elimination, turning into single-elimination, and culminating with a final between the United States and Canada that had been played on a lawn tennis court in the driving rain. The Americans would slosh their way to a 19-8 win over their northern neighbors, capturing the first ever Olympic gold medal.

The United States would then begin a succession of wins no men's basketball nation has dared to match since. Even with the introduction of Soviet teams into the competition in 1952, the U.S. continued to dominate, and while the Soviets were a proven equal, they would be bested by the United States in the gold medal games of 1952, 1956, 1960, and 1964, netting the bronze in 1968 while the Americans defeated Yugoslavia.

Going into the 1972 Munich Games, the U.S was nearly invicible, having won 55 straight games in the Olympics. After coasting through the first eight games by an average margin of 32.5 points, they would face off again against the Soviets for the gold. At the end of the game, three inbound attempts marred the game for eternity, and the Soviets took advantage to win the game 51-50, stopping the streak at 63 for the Americans and giving someone other than them the gold for the first time ever. The U.S. went so far as to refuse the silver medals, and despite all attempts they have never taken them. Things would quickly rebound for the Americans four years later in Montreal, as they would return to their winning ways and won an 8th gold medal. Also, in 1976, the women fielded basketball teams for the first time. A six-team round robin was formed, and the Soviets swept the competition to capture gold, the first of back-to-back gold medals.

But then history took a giant turn, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter demanded the Soviets withdraw, or they would not go to the Moscow Games of 1980, an event many said would allow the Soviets to be shown in a light manipulated for their own cause. Neither country would budge. The basketball competition was altered drastically. In an Olympics that would be dominated by the Communist Bloc, Yugoslavia would take gold and the Soviets bronze.

The Soviets, angered by the Moscow boycott, decided to boycott the 1984 Los Angeles Games in retaliation, along with numerous Soviet and communist-backed allies. This offended American coach Bob Knight to no end. He had his team training for months to defeat the Soviets, and now that they were not coming, Knight had to settle for defeating Spain by 31 points in the gold medal game. The women followed suit, winning gold by 30 over the South Koreans.

The Soviet men came back in 1988 for the Seoul Games with vengeance in mind, and while the Americans would win all five of their pool games plus the quarterfinals, this meant playing the Soviets. This time they would lose the semifinal 82-76. And while the Americans would coast to the bronze medal, they would have to watch the Soviets gain their measure of revenge by snatching the very medal that had grown to be Team USA's virtual birthright. The women, on the other hand, coasted to gold after an 8-0 Games and a win over Yugoslavia.

History would alter the course of the competition once again. First, FIBA agreed to allow NBA and professional players to make up Olympic teams beginning with the 1992 Barcelona Games. Second, the Soviet Union collapsed; both factors left the United States as the dominant power once again. And the men's "Dream Team" would be just that, winning its five pool games by an average of 45.8 points, and then going on to 38, 51 and 32 point wins in the knockout phase, easily winning another gold medal for the nation. In 1992, women's basketball was still not as popular in the world stage, and players were not very well known as a result. The competition was won in 1992 by a collection of rouge nations from the former Communist Bloc known as the "CIS", who upset the U.S. in the semifinals and then went on to beat China.

With the movement to start the WNBA spreading and with the formation of true women's professional leagues looming with the American Basketball League, the 1996 Atlanta Games produced a Women's "Dream Team" to compliment "Dream Team II" with the men. 12 women, who would join up as founding mothers of both the ABL and the WNBA, the women proved just as powerful as their male counterparts. They posted three 100+ point games, matching the men's total, although the men won in more convincing combined fashion. Both teams cruised to easy gold medals. But the bigger story in 1996 was indeed the women's movement. Eleven months later, the WNBA tipped off for the first time, and women's basketball was finally legitimized.

American domination continued into the new millennium. The women of the United States cruised to gold in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. But the road was a little more difficult for the men. After dominating Sydney, they faced possibly their biggest road in Athens. In Athens, they lost pool games to teams they bullied for decades. Puerto Rico had even beaten them by 19. They could barely beat Greece and Australia. Lithuania even beat them, and their only massive win was over Angola. In the knockout round, they settled for an eight point triumph over Spain. But then they lost to Argentina by 8, and while they were able to take Bronze, they were unable to continue dominance.

However in 2008, they proved they were back, winning the five pool games by an average of 32 points over teams that gained strength and legitimacy over the years. Their only great challenge was the final one, but they defeated Spain by nine to regain gold, a team that many have called "The Redeem Team".

As we get ready for the 2012 London Games, we do not know at all if the Americans will continue their diabolical dominance. Both the men and women are favored, but the old saying is true: the only answer to all competitive questions is on the court, and not in the mouths of the critics.


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