After the great flame is extinguished from the Olympic
cauldron at the closing ceremonies this weekend, when all of the medals
have been handed out and the athletes have all dispersed to their home
nations across the world, the biggest stories and the greatest memories
will be about the
women of the 28th Olympiad.
At the first Olympics in Athens in 1896, no women were permitted to participate. In 2004, more than 40%
of the competitors are female*. Whether competing as individuals or
as members of a team, most were names that we had never heard before,
looking to establish themselves in our collective consciousness, while
others were some of the most recognizeable names in sport, looking to
cement themselves in our permanent memory.
Gymnast Carly Patterson became the first American woman
to win the all-around
gold medal since Mary Lou Retton accomplished the feat at the 1984
Games. Swimmer Natalie Coughlin won more medals in Athens than any American
except Michael Phelps. Mariel Zagunis became the first American of either
gender to win an Olympic gold medal while the tandem of Misty May and
Kerri Walsh steamrolled their competition to win the Olympic
beach volleyball tournament.
The American women have been just as prodigious in the
team sports as well. The U.S. Women's Basketball team is on the verge
of a third consecutive gold medal and has been stealing headlines from
the well-known U.S. Men's team, even being called "the Real Dream Team."
But the U.S. Women's Basketball team is not
the only Dream Team at these Games. The Women's
Soccer team, made up of the
retiring "Fab Five," completed its dream by winning the gold. These
are the women who paved
the way for women's sports to be successful in America, and they are
leaving the future in good hands. But perhaps the most dominant team in
Athens was the gold medal-winning U.S.
Softball team, who gave up only one run (in the final inning of the
final game, mind you).
If the American women's basketball team wins the gold
medal tomorrow, they could go down in history as the greatest female team
ever. They have beaten their opponents in just about every
way possible. The Americans have been focused on defending their gold
medals from Day One, and have looked
good doing it. They even faced adversity in
starting shooting guard Katie Smith, survived a brief scare from Spain
and had the time of their lives.
The Supreme Chancellor
As U.S. men's coach Larry Brown has learned, having the best
players does not ensure an easy ride. U.S. Women's coach Van Chancellor
has not faced as stiff competition so far, but his job has been far from
easy. Coaching a team of superstars requires requires delicate precision
of players' egos. Except for the fact that these American
women have no egos. Chancellor has played
his cards just right so far and maintained perfect team chemistry.
Chancellor toyed with a plan to shorten his rotation
in the win over Greece, but the U.S. got up big very early (thanks to
Shannon Johnson finding her shot), that the reserves ended up getting
solid minutes anyway. The U.S. overcame a raucous
and hostile Greek crowd supporting their team, but Greece was just
happy to be playing in that game after their thrilling preliminary
clinhing victory over Japan.
As they had in their previous five games, the U.S. team
on its defense and interior dominance. Lisa Leslie has been the most
dominant female basketball player in the Games thus far, but if it were
not for the additional support in the paint from Thompson, who has waited
a long time for this chance, Yolanda Griffith, Tamika Catchings and
the other U.S. frontcourt players, Leslie could have been targeted and
potentially neutralized. Yolanda Griffith, Johnson and Diana Taurasi were
subs off the bench, but no matter who Chancellor turns to, he can
Teacher Faces Pupil
U.S. point guard Dawn Staley faced
a familiar opponent in the quarterfinal win over Greece. Former Temple
women’s basketball player Athena Christoforakis represeted Greece in these
Games and went up against Staley, the Owls’ current head women’s basketball
coach. Christoforakis played for the Owls during the 2000-01 and 2001-02
seasons and helped Temple capture its first-ever Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball
Championship. A junior college transfer, she scored nearly 700 points
and grabbed over 500 rebounds in her two years in North Philly.
In the win over Greece, the U.S. played the first basketball
game of the tournament at Olympic
Indoor Hall in Athens. The venue was previously used for gymnastics,
where both the American men and women both enjoyed considerable success.
As a reward for beating Greece, the U.S.
next faces Russia. Throughout the history of women's basketball, the
Russians (formerly the Soviets) and Americans have been the two dominant
teams on the international stage. Between them, they have won all seven
Olympic gold medals, with the U.S. holding a slim 4-3 margin.
Now, with only two games left to win for a gold medal,
the tension is beginning
to mount. The U.S. has key veterans who have been here before, and
know how to handle
the pressure of going for gold. New York Liberty center Elena
Baranova is the experienced star for Russia, but the key to the game
could be the 6-8 former Mercury center Maria Stepanova (who has committed
to the Mercury after the Olympics are over).
Storming Towards a Showdown
It was no surprise that Australia, led by 2003 WNBA MVP
Lauren Jackson, cruised into the semifinals as well. The Opals bounced
their Oceania neighbor New Zealand from the tournament to set up another
game with Brazil. The two teams faced each other earlier in the preliminary
round, with Australia winning easily, 84-66.
But make no mistake about it. Lauren Jackson wants
a shot at the U.S. After losing to the U.S. in the gold medal game
in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Jackson has been waiting for her chance at
redemption. But in order to get that gold, she will have to go
through Storm teammate Sue Bird and coach Anne Donovan, who is an
assistant with the U.S. Team.
Back in June, I sat alone with Jackson and Bird in a
back room at the NBA
Store in New York to interview them for our Ambassadors
of the Game features. Both were confident that their teams would play
each other at some point, but Jackson confidently predicted that Australia
would take home the gold medal. Bird's response? "Those are some
bold words, man." Bold, indeed.
The men's and women's team have gotten closer throughout
their stays in Athens. Both are staying together, isolated from all of
the other athletes at the Olympic
Village and have been in the stands supporting each other. Both teams
are still alive and have a very good chance of giving the U.S. yet another
pair of Olympic championship basketball teams, just as they did in 1984,
1996 and 2000.
Since the beginning of their tournament, the men have
improved significantly from game to game, even scoring a mini
upset of undefeated Spain in their quarterfinal matchup. The women
have been steady throughout, winning their games by more than 33.0 point
per game. However, over the past decade, the overall women's game has
gotten steadily better with each passing year thanks to watching and learning
from the men's game. The athleticism, solid shooting and physical
play has improved dramatically, but the female players have maintained
their team-oriented approach, proving that these stars
are team players, too.