THE XX-FACTOR IN ATHENS
Posted by Matt Wurst on Aug. 27 2004 4:14 a.m. ET

THEIR OLYMPIC LEGACY WILL BURN BRIGHT

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 losing 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 and management 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 focused 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 the super subs off the bench, but no matter who Chancellor turns to, he can expect a superstar performance.

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.

Russian Roulette

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 returning 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.

Twin Golds

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.