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Dynasties damaged: Team USA has a fight on its hands

·4 min read
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Katie Ledecky was powering through the final stretch of her 400-meter freestyle race, the point where she'd usually left the field far back in her wake. She was feeling good — "smooth and strong," in her words — when she looked to her left and realized she wasn't alone anymore. 

"Oh," Ledecky thought, "she's right there." 

"She" was Ariarne Titmus of Australia, a challenger four years younger than Ledecky, a challenger who caught and passed Ledecky for the gold medal. This, despite the fact that Ledecky posted her second-fastest time in the event ever, a time fast enough to have won every single 400-meter freestyle event in history ... except this one.

We’re only a few days into the Tokyo Olympics, but this much is clear: American Olympic dynasties are under assault, and no gold medal prediction is safe. 

Foundations crack. Statues weather. Oceans rise, empires fall. And dynasties start leaking oil. The signs are gathering:

  • The women’s gymnastics team, led by Simone Biles, finished second in team qualifying to the Russian Olympic Committee team. (That’s what the Olympics are calling the Russians, a “punishment” for their state-sponsored doping program.) In gold medal terms, that means exactly nothing. Scores don’t carry over to the medal round. But in practical terms, this was Russia throwing a haymaker at the weigh-in, notice to the USA that nothing’s going to come easy.

  • The U.S. women’s soccer team started the Olympics by losing to Sweden 3-0 in a match that didn’t even look that close. Too old, too slow, too overmatched, too overconfident … pick your excuse, they all fit the debacle that was that opener.

  • The men’s basketball team utterly surrendered to France, a victim of poor defense, poor roster construction, poor shooting, poor coaching and poor pretty-much-everything-else. The super-team approach didn’t work for the Brooklyn Nets, and it’s not working for Team USA, either.‌

Heads up, America. The world is right there.

This week has seen a raft of American streaks crumble into dust. Before Sweden, the USWNT had gone unbeaten in 44 straight games. The gymnastics team hadn’t lost a team final or qualifying event anywhere since 2010. The men’s basketball team hadn’t lost an Olympic game since 2004. A whole lot of “Days Since Our Last Bad Day” counters just got reset to zero.

Now, is any of this a reason to worry? To fret, or complain, or gripe that this is the fault of America getting too soft/political/lazy? Absolutely not. Granted, Americans do complain, an awful lot, about everything. But more than that, Americans triumph over adversity. And that’s exactly what these teams need right now, a little American ingenuity and resolve.

Sure, there was an understandable swell of national pride when we watched the Dream Team beating teams by 60 points, or Ledecky streaking out to leads so large the other swimmers weren’t even visible on TV screens. Domination is fun!

But domination isn’t sustainable. Eventually, the rest of the world catches on and catches up. And the athletes and coaches know it.

"That’s a little bit of hubris if you think that America should just roll the ball out and win," Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich said after the loss to France. "We have to work like everybody else ... The gap in talent has shrunk every year as there are more and more good players throughout the world."

“This might be a great awakening for us,” said Tom Forester, high-performance coordinator for America's women's gymnastics team. "And we’ll take advantage of it."

"As an athlete you go through ups and downs," USWNT forward Christen Press said after the Sweden loss. "It wasn’t going to be easy, we weren’t going to breeze through six games no matter what, so here we are."

It’s entirely possible that all of these teams and athletes will get themselves pointed in the right direction bring home enough gold to redecorate the Capitol dome. U.S. gymnasts just need to perform at a baseline level to remain in competition. The USWNT took out frustrations with a thorough throttling of New Zealand. The men’s basketball team … well, they’ve got Kevin Durant, and theoretically that alone ought to be enough to pull out of their current tailspin.

Oddsmakers still favor the Americans. Team USA men's basketball is -250 to win gold, with Australia next at +800. The USWNT is -110, with the Netherlands next at +500. The women's gymnastics team holds the best odds at -450, with ROC next at +350. (All odds per BetMGM.)

Gold earned through strife is that much sweeter. Let’s see what these U.S. teams are made of.

Simone Biles knows that the road ahead's going to be a rocky one. (Wally Skalij /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Simone Biles knows that the road ahead's going to be a rocky one. (Wally Skalij /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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