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In his book The End of History and the Last Man, from 1992, Japanese American political scientist Francis Fukuyama translated into words the feeling of millions in a world of transformation. The recent dismantling of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded a new era, and for many the end of the Cold War appeared to be the final victory of a political ideology, an economic system and, above all, a country: the United States of America.
At the turn of the 80s to the 90s the Olympic Movement saw changes. After three editions featuring boycotts and discussions unrelated to the sporting world, Barcelona 1992 again placed the globe under the sign of peace, respect for differences and friendship among all peoples. But for one specific sport, the Spanish edition of the Games went beyond. For the first time, Olympic Basketball included NBA athletes, the US professional league. With the so-called “Dream Team” to the public and sport critics alike, the ball-in-the-basket game would also have reached the end of story. From then on, it was impossible to beat USA’s preponderance.
Whether pros or amateurs, in fact the supremacy of the creators of Basketball – actually created by a Canadian in USA territory – started way before 1992. From its debut at Berlin 1936 until Seoul 1988, there were 12 Olympic men’s competitions. The USA participated in 11 of them and earned nine gold medals. At Barcelona 1992, with a team composed of legends such as Michael Jordan, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird, John Stockton and Karl Malone, the toughest victory was at the final against Croatia, scoring 32 points ahead. At Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, the difference was lower but the colour of the medal remained the same.
“It is an honour to be able to represent your country, whether it’s the U.S., Brazil or Spain. It’s such a special opportunity to represent your nation and to try and earn a gold medal. The teams prepare themselves and get better and better every four years, but that’s the fun of the competition. I hope the U.S. can find a way to win again at the next Games”, says Olympic two-time winner guard Jason Kidd, Olympic champion at Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008, who has never lost a game as a U.S. professional in 56 matches.
An injury forced Kidd to watch instead of play at Athens 2004, where Puerto Rico started out taking the world by surprise and beating USA 92-73 in a historic match. Still in the first phase, the North-American team was also defeated by Lithuania by four points. The final defeat happened at the semi-final, against Argentina – which turned out to be the champion – by 89-81, proving that history, at least that of Basketball, had not come to an end.
Beijing 2008’s retake
A three matches’ setback and the bronze medal at Athens 2004 showed the world that beating USA pros at the Olympic Games was possible. Two years before at the USA World Championship in the city of Indianapolis, the fifth place earned by the world’s most powerful team was an advance sign. In 2006, again, the North-American team did not go beyond the bronze medal at the World Championship in Japan.
Only four out of 12 of the players who had competed at Athens 2004 made it to Beijing 2008. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Carlos Boozer played with other sports stars such as centre Dwight Howard and guard Kobe Bryant, besides Jason Kidd, the only one in the team with an Olympic title in his CV. It was six victories until the semi-final, none of which with less than 21 points ahead. It was time to face Argentina again.
The smooth victory counted on 21 points by forward Carmelo Anthony, leading scorer and the highlight of the match, avenging the defeat he had taken part in four years before. The result led the USA to the final against Spain, which had been beat in the preliminary phase by 37 points. The gold was earned with guard Dwyane Wade’s 27 points, in response to Athens 2004 fiasco. The final score was 118-107.
“Beijing did an excellent job and I believe everyone enjoyed and were very happy with that experience. We players were even happier, after all, we were the champions”, Kidd recalls.
Beijing’s retake was consolidated with the 2010 World title earned in Turkey. At London 2012 and Rio 2016™, a new era of primacy of the world’s Basketball power will be at play, now in a new world, though.
Having accomplished his duty in the court, Kidd (39) just watches the transformation of sport and cheers: “I think this is an excellent opportunity for Brazil to be able to host the 2016 Games. Sport in general, particularly Basketball, can only gain with that. It will be an honour to host the world’s best athletes for two or three weeks. I’ll be there watching”.
Women’s absolute domain
At women’s Basketball, whose debut was at Montreal 1976, the USA won six out of eight editions in which they competed. The Soviet Union was the champion at the first and second editions, the latter at Moscow 1980, the only one where the USA did not play. The Soviet ladies also won at Barcelona 1992, representing the Unified Team, when they beat the USA 79-73 in the semifinal.
That was the last time USA was defeated at an Olympic women’s Basketball match. Since then, there have been 33 competitions, including the one for the bronze medal in 1992. It has been four consecutive gold medals earned by a team without rivals for nearly 20 years. Australia was the finalist at the last three Olympic Games. Its best result was being defeated by 11 points at Athens 2004.
In 2006, however, the Australian girls attained an achievement only the Soviet Union and Brazil had done before. They took the USA off the highest position on the podium at the World Championship, held in São Paulo then. Russia beat USA’s girls in the semifinal but could not resist in the final. Two years later, at Wukesong Indoor Stadium at full capacity, Australia stopped and watched what would have been a change of throne in women’s Basketball, but the North-American won by 27 points.