History of basketball at Olympics: A tale of American domination

Having introduced the sport to the world, it’s no surprise that the USA has produced some of the finest moments in Olympic basketball history, including the Dream Team.
By Naveen Peter

Basketball was invented in the United States of America in 1891. But it didn’t take too long for the sport to become popular. Today, it’s one of the most-watched sports in the world.

Its rise can be traced back to its roots in a gym class in Springfield, Massachusetts, making its way into high school and colleges before evolving into a professional sport it is today. Eventually, it made its way to the sport’s grandest events.

When did basketball start in the Olympics?

Basketball was introduced in the Olympic programme at the 1904 Games in St Louis as a demonstration event. It was only from the 1936 Olympics that it was contested as a medal event. Women’s basketball, meanwhile, made its debut at the Munich 1976 Games.

Tokyo 2020 will see 3x3 basketball make its debut at the Olympics.

Who qualifies for Olympic basketball?

A total of 12 teams, each in the men’s and the women’s competition, qualify for the basketball event at the Olympic Games.

While seven teams can gain entry through the FIBA World Cup, four slots are determined through the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament. The last remaining slot is reserved for the hosts.

Which country has won the most Olympic gold medals in basketball?

The United States of America is the most successful team in the history of Olympics basketball.

The USA Olympic men’s basketball team has won the gold medal a record 15 times, which includes an unbeaten streak from 1936 to 1968.

Their women’s basketball team, meanwhile, has pocketed the gold medal on eight occasions. This includes an unbeaten run that’s still in place and dates back to Atlanta 1996.

USA dominates Olympic basketball

Having invented the sport in the late 1800s, it was no surprise that the USA dominated basketball once it was included as a medal event at the 1936 Olympics.

With the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) playing a key role in spreading the sport to various nations, as many as 21 teams competed for the top honours at the Berlin 1936 Games.

But none could stand in the USA’s way as they romped home to emphatic wins in each of their matches to take home the gold.

The coming years saw the Americans grow stronger as they retained the Olympic title in commanding fashion. With no losses throughout their campaigns, their wins in the gold medal matches were most startling.

The USA basketball team beat France 65-21 in the final of the 1948 Games. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was at the receiving end of the Americans in the following four editions -- 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964 -- with the champions recording dominating wins to retain their crown.

But despite their wins, this period also saw the rise of the Soviet Union as a force in the international basketball scene.

The Soviets had made their presence felt at the continental stage by winning the biennial European Basketball Championships 10 times from 1951 to 1971 and the FIBA World Championships in 1972.

And when the 1972 Munich Olympics came around, their sole focus was to capture the only title missing from their cabinet -- an Olympic gold in basketball.

USA gets a shock at Munich Olympics

Coming into the Munich Olympics, the Americans were once again favourites to retain their title. But a look at their build-up suggested otherwise.

They had lost out to the Soviets in the final of the 1970 World University Games and bowed out of the 1971 Pan American Games without a medal.

What really hurt them in this phase was the lack of international experience in the squad. With the Olympic competition being restricted to amateurs, the best hoopsters in America were kept out of the Olympic team -- as they turned pro by joining the NBA -- while the top collegiate talent made up the squad.

Though this worked for the USA in the previous editions, this time the Soviets had found a way to exploit the American limitation by listing their players as soldiers or workers, which allowed them to breach the amateur rules.

This meant while the USA had high school sophomore Doug Collins and the North Carolina State University rookie Tommy Burleson as their best players, the Soviets rode on the brilliance of experienced stars Sergei Belov, Modestas Paulauskas and Alexander Belov.

However, it wasn’t until the gold medal game that the lack of experience came to haunt the USA.

Having come into the gold medal match without losing a game, the final was expected to be a close contest. But the Soviets had a different plan.

The USA lost to the Soviet Union in the final of the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

The Soviet Union basketball team controlled the proceedings with smart ball play, often using the length of the court to stretch the American defence to score points at will. The Soviets scored first and led by the healthy margin of 26-21 at the half.

“We particularly struggled against the Russians because they were adept at controlling the tempo,” Mike Bantom, a member of the ’72 team, now senior vice president for NBA player development, told the New York Times.

While the Americans mounted a comeback in the second period it wasn’t until the final six minutes that they had their opponents in trouble.

Trailing by eight points, the Americans put pressure and saw the Soviets stumble, helping them reduce the gap to just a point with six seconds left on the clock.

Down to the wire for the gold medal, Doug Collins - the pillar of his team - was not done yet as he made a fine open-court steal and drove towards the paint before being knocked down.

The foul meant the Americans were awarded two free throws to seal the match. While Collins sank them both to put his side ahead, the Soviets called for a time-out.

The game resumed with a second left, and when that went by, the United States players started celebrating. But the drama was not over yet.

Moments later, the FIBA president was seen on court asking for a redo of the final three seconds due to a refereeing error.

This time though, the Soviets ensured that they made the most of the opportunity as Alexander Belov pulled out a buzzer-beater to subject the USA to their first loss at the Olympic stage.

Though the Americans appealed against the final decision, it was turned down as the Soviet Union won their maiden basketball Olympic crown.

The Dream Team

The coming years also saw a number of countries making the most of the loopholes in the amateur player rule to field top talents at the Olympics.

However, this changed in 1992 after FIBA ruled to include professionals for the Barcelona Olympics.

This allowed the USA to select what was later dubbed as the greatest sports team ever assembled.

The team featured the likes of NBA superstars Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone among others.

The Dream Team, coached by Chuck Daly, a two-time NBA champion, had a pre-competition camp in Monaco and then moved into a luxury hotel in Barcelona, where they stayed during the Games.

The Dream Team dominated the Olympic competition, sailing through to win the gold medal. They were the first team to score 100 points in every match at the Games, something that led to their head coach commenting: “It was like Elvis and the Beatles put together.”

However, it’s the legacy that the team left behind that had a lasting impact on the popularity that basketball enjoys today.

Following Barcelona 1992, foreign recruits have been a major draw in the NBA with Yao Ming and Andrea Bargnani being the number one draft picks in (2002) and (2006) respectively. Meanwhile, Dirk Nowitzki and Giannis Antetokounmpo have won the NBA MVP award since.

Women’s basketball at the Olympics

While the men’s game has enjoyed a storied history under the Olympic banner, women’s basketball has a similarly rich vein of tales to tap into.

The USA is the most successful team in women's Olympic basketball with eight titles.

Making its debut at the 1976 Games in Montreal, women’s basketball has been a constant presence at the Olympics ever since. 

The Soviet Union was the first to claim the Olympic title in the women’s category by beating the United States in the final at the 1976 Games. While the Soviets retained their crown at their home Games in 1980, the Americans took the gold medals in the following two Games. 

In 1992, a Unified Team consisting of the former Soviet Republics beat China for the title.

The Americans, however, returned to regain their crown at Atlanta 1996 and have won the title at every edition since.