Is Michael Phelps too good? What about Simone Biles or Katie Ledecky? What about Usain Bolt?
Is their dominance at the Olympic Games hurting swimming, gymnastics or track and field?
Questions like that were not posed to those athletes throughout the 2016 Olympics. Instead, those elite athletes are celebrated — as they should be — for the remarkable talents and dominant performances.
But those questions are routinely asked of the USA Basketball teams, particularly the women’s team, which just won its sixth straight gold medal with a 101-72 win over Spain on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro.
While the USA faced a few tests along the way – holding a lead of 10 points or fewer at half in each of their last two games before the gold medal game, against Japan and France, respectively – they have won their games by an average of 37.25 points, including a 29-point victory in the gold medal game against Spain.
The USA is in a difficult situation. Either the team is too dominant and win by such a wide margin that the games are not competitive or considered entertaining, or it plays a close game and are criticized with questions about what’s wrong with the team and why the game was not a blowout.
“You can’t always make everyone happy,” said Elena Delle Donne following Team USA’s win over Canada on Aug. 12. “It’s so funny because in other sports, the dominance of a Michael Phelps is so celebrated but us, people want to hate on us and say we’re killing the sport.”
Delle Donne is a first-time Olympian so she is getting her first taste of the backlash of being on such a dominant team on the world stage. For head coach Geno Auriemma, it’s quite a different story.
Not only is this his second go-around leading the USA at the Olympics, but he has been fielding these types of questions for years as the leader of the preeminent collegiate basketball program in the country at the University of Connecticut. As he has led the Huskies to a record 11 national championships, Auriemma is constantly faced with accusations that his program’s success is detrimental to the game rather than celebrated for its sustained excellence.
“We are what we are. We’re never going to apologize for being that good,” said Auriemma after Team USA’s win over Serbia on Aug. 10. “We’re never going to apologize for setting a standard that other people aspire to achieve.
“We got a guy in the pool with a USA swim cap on who nobody can beat. And if he wasn’t in swimming, there would be a lot of other guys with gold medals. So, it is what it is. The world needs times when such great, great teams or great individuals are doing great things, that other people can talk about and other people say, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great to be at that level?’ These are Olympians. They’re supposed to play at a high level. They’re professionals, they’re supposed to put on a show, they’re supposed to entertain.
“So, what are we supposed to do? Just go out there and win by a little? We’re not bad for women’s basketball, just like I say at UConn, we’re not bad for women’s basketball. What’s bad for women’s basketball is when nobody’s great, because then you could say, ‘You know what? I don’t think anybody really knows how to play this game.’”
“We are what we are. We’re never going to apologize for being that good.” – Geno Auriemma
Auriemma has plenty of practice in giving responses like the one above. Back in April, his Huskies won their fourth straight NCAA title to put Auriemma’s career championship total past the legendary John Wooden (10 titles with UCLA’s men program) as the top mark in the history of college basketball. His star player during that run, Breanna Stewart, is the youngest member of this USA team as she made her Olympic debut in Rio.
“It comes to the point where you don’t even pay attention to it,” said Stewart, about critics, after the Canada game. “The people who say we are bad for women’s basketball aren’t watching women’s basketball. They’re just making the comment. If they were to watch and see how we play the game … we’re setting the bar; we’re setting the expectations really high and everyone else needs to get better and get to that level.”
Tara VanDerveer, who coached the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that started this streak of winning gold medals, echoes Stewart’s sentiments about the United States setting the standard that other countries have to strive for, not only to have a shot at knocking off the U.S. in international competitions, but for the betterment of the game as a whole.
“A lot of the success of women’s basketball is because of the development of the game at the college level, the high school level, things have just improved so much in terms of the teaching of the game, the development of the fundamentals,” VanDerveer said. “We just have so many great players in the United States and we just need to continue to do that, continue to develop the game, teach the game and challenge the rest of the world to do the same.”
Dynasties don’t last forever – Wooden’s run at UCLA was finally stopped, as was Red Auerbach’s title streak with the Boston Celtics and Phil Jackson’s success with the Bulls and Lakers. Eventually, another country will challenge the U.S. Women’s National Team and take the gold medal away for the first time since 1992.
“We’re setting the bar; we’re setting the expectations really high and everyone else needs to get better and get to that level.” – Breanna Stewart
But it is going to take time for the rest of the world to reach the standard that this team and the past five U.S. Olympic teams have set? The talent pool in the United States is extremely deep, especially when you consider that some of the top players in the WNBA this season aren’t even on this team (see Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike of the league-leading Sparks) and there are plenty of young players to join Stewart, Delle Donne and fellow first-timer Brittney Griner in Tokyo in 2020 and beyond (see Sklyar Diggins, Jewell Loyd and the rest of the U.S. Select Team that helped prepare this Olympic team for competition in Rio.)
This year’s team features that trio of Olympic rookies as well as a trio of Olympic veterans in Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi that are set to make their exit from the team after collecting their fourth gold medals and joining Lisa Leslie and Teresa Edwards for the most golds ever. That balance of youth and experience is critical to USA Basketball’s success as the pipeline of talent is constantly refreshed, while still allowing rookies to learn from veterans that have been on the Olympic stage before.
There has been some talk, especially on the men’s side, that NBA players should only suit up for the USA at one Olympics or that the U.S. should only send players aged 25 and under to compete in international competition. Would international players playing in the NBA or WNBA be held to the same rule? Imagine Spain without Pau Gasol or Australia without Penny Taylor. Or would that rule only apply to the U.S. teams?
Would the games be more competitive if the USA adopted these type or rules? Sure. But there would also be the side effect that this country would be sending an inferior product to compete on the world’s biggest stage, which pretty much defeats the entire idea of the Olympics.
We wouldn’t tell Jamaica that Usain Bolt couldn’t run on the 4×100 meter relay team because the country is just too fast with him on the track and since he’s already competed in two Olympics, he doesn’t need to do it a third time. Bolt was the star attraction at Olympic Stadium for the past week as fans poured into the stands and remained in their seats through pouring rain just to see him obliterate the field in his three events.
It’s the same for Phelps (and his record 23 Olympic gold medals) and Ledecky (who won races by such wide margins that her competitors were off the television screen when she reach the finish line) in swimming; Biles (who won the all-around competition by a greater margin than the previous nine Olympic champions combined) in gymnastics, and the U.S. women’s eight rowing team (who has won every world championship and Olympic competition for the past decade).
Why should basketball be any different? Why should excellence on the court be judged differently than it is in a pool or a gymnastics arena or a lake? Why are the achievements of the U.S. women’s basketball team viewed under a different lens?
“If you go out there and play the right way and play as a team, no matter the result, I don’t know how that can be bad for a sport.” – Diana Taurasi
“If you like basketball, I think you enjoy watching good basketball,” said Taurasi after Team USA’s win over Senegal to open their Olympic play on Aug. 7. “And if you don’t like watching basketball, I don’t know, go watch rowing or whatever you like. I don’t know what’s good and bad anymore for the game, but if you go out there and play the right way and play as a team, no matter the result, I don’t know how that can be bad for a sport.”
“There is something to be said about a team that can come together in two weeks and play the way we’re playing right now,” said Bird after the Senegal game. “More than anything, regardless of the score, it’s beautiful basketball. We’re sharing the ball. I don’t even know how many points we scored, a hundred-and-whatever. You’re going to look at that number, then look at the assist number. We share the ball, we move the ball, we make the right plays at the right time, and that to me is a great brand of basketball.
“And if we can elevate the play, if people strive to play that way and we can elevate the play of the entire world, then what’s better than that for basketball? Nothing.”