Can anybody stop the USA? That will be the question on most lips, and those looking to break the Americans’ stranglehold do not exactly have history in their favour. The USA have won gold in five of the last six men’s tournaments and seven of the last eight women’s events – but Rio 2016, which celebrates 80 years since basketball first made its mark on the Olympic calendar, should provide some enthralling challenges to their hegemony.
European champions Spain, runners-up in the men’s event at London 2012, are back this year and will line up in Group B – alongside Argentina, Brazil, Lithuania, Croatia and Nigeria. It is a strong sextet, with the Argentinians finishing fourth in London and winning gold in Athens 12 years ago.
The USA’s group includes Serbia, who they beat in the 2014 FIBA World Cup final, as well as France, Venezuela, China and Australia. The first matches will be played on 6 August, with Australia playing France, USA facing China and Venezuela up against Serbia.
Mike Krzyzewski, the USA head coach, is excited about the challenge ahead. “I’m anxious to get on the court and, along with my great coaching staff, get to work,” he said. “Since 2006 and including the last two Olympics, our players have represented themselves, the game and our country in an exemplary manner. I know this team will continue that standard.”
There should also be excitement in the women’s group stage. In London Team USA has bested France 86:50 with the bronze medal going to Australia. In Rio USA and Spain are among those drawn in Group B. The two contested a tight final at the 2014 FIBA Women’s World Cup, which USA won by a score of 77-64. Canada, Senegal, Serbia and China complete the lineup. Group A includes Brazil France, Japan, Belarus, Australia and Turkey. The latter two contested the bronze medal game at the World Cup; Australia won by a resounding 74-44 and could well be contenders for gold this time around.
The Australians, fixtures on the podium, will be travelling with optimism. "Gold is always the goal at an Olympic Games but we know there is a long way to getting the chance to play for that gold medal," said Penny Taylor, who will play her third Olympics.
"We have a strong team and a very similar team to what we had at the 2014 World Championships and I think Brendan [Joyce, their coach] has done a wonderful job implementing a system that we love being a part of.”
Both basketball competitions will be played in a round-robin format, with every team playing the others in its group once. The top four in each group will qualify for the quarter-finals – group winners playing the fourth-placed team in the other group, and runner-up playing third – at which point a straight knock-out system results. The women’s final and bronze medal game are to take place on 20 August, with the men’s showpieces being played a day later.
Naturally, Rio has two superb venues lined up to host the cream of the sport. The Youth Arena will host the group stage of the women’s event, while all other games will be played at Carioca Arena 1 inside Barra Olympic Park. Carioca Arena 1 has been designed with basketball squarely in mind, and its 16,000 seats are bound to be packed when the Games finally get underway.
Whoever you are cheering for, this summer’s basketball tournaments will be high-octane affairs that demand full attention. There will be stars everywhere, from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to Spain’s legendary Pau Gasol in the men’s event. Breanna Stewart, the USA’s 21-year-old sensation, should also be watched out for in the women’s competition and the forward Laura Hodges will spearhead Australia’s challenge. The one guarantee is that it will not be dull.