How LeBron James and Kobe Bryant Explain the Fall of US Olympic Dominance

Last week, Team USA released the lineup for its Olympic Basketball team on its website. One glance down the list and one is slapped in the face by an unavoidable question: why do the other nations of the world even bother to compete? 

Team USA’s lineup is stacked — Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant — a pantheon of upper six-feet multi-millionaires who accumulated their fortunes playing basketball every day and hitting their every jump shot. A handful of Team USA’s players are among the nation’s most powerful cultural icons and are recognized globally. What country’s basketball team can boast the same? 

Sports writers complain every year that Team USA lacks something: the team lacks depth, they lack length, they lack an inventive/competent head coach, the team is really going to have to pull it together if they’re going to beat Spain or the Soviet Union or Argentina. Yet, in the 75 years of basketball at the Olympics the U.S. has won gold every year except for four. Only one of those years did they not medal, 1980, the year the U.S. boycotted the Games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Instead of intriguing dialogue and speculation over which nation will take home basketball’s gold we are forced to settle for ridiculous commentary like: Michael Jordan's Dream Team or Kobe Bryant's Dream Team: Who Would Win? Statistics and reasoning like this beg the question: why do we play basketball at the Olympic Games? Instead of being a broad, multi-dimensional, and open competition that an Olympic sport should be, basketball seems to be more a matter of: Can the imminently talented American superstars win like they should? 

This United States superstardom mentality spreads across more sports than just basketball: the United States holds the record for most gold medals in the majority of summer Olympic sports. U.S. dominance at the summer Olympic Games is an undeniable historical fact. 

We contribute more athletes than any other country; we have hosted more Games, and have won more medals than any other country (double the number of total medals than the second highest medaling country — the Soviet Union). The United States dominance in the summer Olympics, and our rivalry with the Soviet Union, reveals a sad truth: athletic prowess can be bought. I do not believe there is something inherently stronger, faster, and more competitive about American men and women. Our wealth allows us to train and send more professional athletes than any other country, and therefore win more medals.

Olympic commentators are well aware of these facts. They often boil down their reporting to the simple question of whether or not the dominant United States will be able to pull through and clinch the total gold count, an arguably more important number than the total medal count. The U.S. leads in so many events that it is easy to just gloss over the events we don’t do well in, and create more intrigue for fans. 

I feel that this focus takes the excitement out of a lot of the individual events, and it subtracts from the spirit of the event in showcasing the athletic strengths of all nations, but to be fair, every nation most likely reports on the Olympics this way. That is because the Olympic victories stand for more than just a single athlete’s athletic achievement; they represent the country’s cultural, social, and economic strength in being able to train and produce athletes like an athletic gross domestic product.

The Olympics are very good proving grounds to showcase a country’s economic capacity and culture-producing powers. A lot of the battles of the Cold War with the Soviet Union were fought in Olympic arenas. The last summer Olympics in 2008 in Beijing had significant consequence for U.S. dominance in the Olympics. For the first time since 1988, China ended up defeating the U.S. for total golds. This was one of only a handful of times the U.S. lost the medal count in Olympic history. The only nation that has ever beaten the U.S. in that count was the Soviet Union. Challenges to the United States’ Olympic dominance come on the wings of similar challenges to our economic and political power worldwide.

Our economy is weak right now. Conversely, as China’s economy grows so will its athletic abilities. If China remains competitive in London this year, it may mean the start of a new Olympic cold war — a sort of economic contest between our nations in the ability to produce athletes. This kind of contest will add a whole new level of importance and excitement to the next few summer Olympic Games. Watching juggernauts run circles around less experienced and less talented athletes is not as thrilling as watching a passionate and even rivalry. That gold medal count will mean more than it has in many years.