LONDON – The U.S. women’s basketball team beat France by 36 points to win the gold medal on Saturday night.
And when the game was over the French players celebrated.
They jumped in the air. They hugged. They kissed each other's cheeks. They danced near the center of the court. Then they moved toward their bench where they hugged and kissed and danced some more.
On the other side of the North Greenwich Arena court, the American women shook each other’s hands. They gave a couple of hugs. They clapped. But mostly they sat waiting for a medal ceremony that has become a routine.
Not the French. No team may have enjoyed a 36-point trampling more. The players held hands and formed a long line facing the stands. They shouted. They whooped. They waved. Some even cried.
Which says everything you need to know about how much better the American team is than anyone else in the world. It has now won five straight gold medals and 41 consecutive games in the Olympics. The scores are rarely close. They are usually such blowouts that second halves turn into a parade of layups as the numbers on the board spiral higher and higher.
Saturday was something of a norm. The French players struggled to bring the ball up court against the Americans. They made mistakes. They missed shots. They couldn't keep up with the faster U.S. players. They were humiliated.
Then when it was over they danced.
[Photos: Team USA Women's Basketball]
"I understand this is strange, people will say, 'They lost but they are happy,' but even in our dreams we didn’t think we will be here," French center Florence Lepron said. "During the game we did not feel good. We lost. But two minutes after the game we were happy."
There are few things the Americans dominate in the Olympics as much as women's basketball. The other day U.S. coach Geno Auriemma compared his team to the old Soviet Red Army hockey teams that terrified other countries every Winter Olympics. He said he felt like he had been handed the keys to a Ferrari and laughed that he better not crash it into a tree.
When the U.S. had its one struggle this Olympics – in the first half against Australia – he worried something might go wrong. Could his invincible team perhaps be vulnerable?
Perhaps this is a statement about the level of women's basketball around the world. The game is growing in places like France, but it is a long way from being the giant it is in the United States. Many of the Americans played have played together in college and therefore are accustomed to each other. They also tend to stay on the national team for a long time, building continuity. Yet the bigger truth is the U.S. has much better female basketball players – so much so that it might take decades for the rest of the world to catch up, if it ever does.
"We don’t want to be disrespectful, but as long as we play hard and play our basketball we will be all right," American guard Sue Bird said after the game.
She was smiling. Most of the Americans were. They wore gold medals over their warm-up suits and laughed the way gold medal winners usually laugh. But there wasn't a great magic in the moment. It seemed this was all part of a routine, a collection of awards before moving on to the next tournament.
But for the French this was everything.
[Related: America's most dominant team?]
They knew they were going to lose on Saturday. They knew they had no chance against the Americans. Any mistake was going to be exploited. The great fear was they might lose by 50 points, that their great moment of silver medal joy would be crushed by the U.S. machine. This is what they dreaded.
Then they lost by just 36, keeping the score much closer for half the game. Imagine, holding the Americans lead to under 10? This alone was something to celebrate, along with the silver medals they already knew they were going to get when they arrived at the arena.
Somehow that knowledge didn’t mute their postgame joy. As the U.S. players quietly took their medals and left the arena floor, the French players stayed. They didn’t want to leave. They sang. They laughed. They jumped.
They lost the gold-medal game of the Olympics by 36 points.
And that was reason for joy.
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