A version of this story appeared in the August 22, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
The U.S. women’s basketball team worked out last weekend at a gym in Rio’s Lagoa district, 2,300 feet beneath the statue of Christ the Redeemer, which looms so large that Cariocas call the neighborhood Christ’s Armpit. Yet if the players smelled something rank, it was more likely a couple of narratives pushed by reporters who had crashed practice.
One story line was the reflexive comparison of the U.S. women to their male counterparts, flattering though it may be. To preserve their perfect record in group play, the U.S. men first struggled to beat Australia and then narrowly slipped past Serbia and France. The women handled their business with much more authority, never trailing after the first quarter of any of six games to stretch their Olympic winning streak to 47 and stay on track for a sixth straight gold medal. They set Olympic records for victory margin and points scored in a 121–56 defeat of Senegal. They beat Spain, silver medalists at the last world championships, by 40. They held Canada to three points for more than 9 of the 10 minutes of one quarter during a 81–51 victory.
But group play took place far from the main action, in the suburb of Deodoro, a place the press had to survive gunfire to get back from—and that made it difficult for reporters to assess the women on their own terms. Only with the move to the Olympic Park for the medal round, where they used a 62–18 run to close out a 110–64 quarterfinal defeat of Japan, did the U.S. women get a chance to bring their act to the big tent.
The other narrative—are the U.S. women too good?—might be called the Connecticut Conundrum. It’s painfully familiar to U.S. coach Geno Auriemma, whose reward for building the most successful collegiate women’s program is to hear debate over whether UConn’s dominance is bad for the game. Former Husky Sue Bird wonders why this line of inquiry always seems to surface around women’s basketball. “We’ve been together only a month, and we’re getting the question,” she says with a shake of her head.
“We live in that Trumpian era where it’s O.K. to be sexist and degrade people that are good, just because they’re the opposite sex,” Auriemma says. “We are what we are. We’re never going to apologize for being that good.”
Tamika Catchings, who with Bird and Diana Taurasi is one of three players shooting for a fourth gold, takes up both narratives at once. “Go back to the men—Kentucky, UCLA with John Wooden, North Carolina—they won over and over,” she says. “But we never talk about that. What, should we roll over and not dominate?”
Better that they stand up and be emulated. Where U.S. men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski last week used timeouts to tutor his players in the fine points of international officiating, the U.S. women needed no such seminars: To make a year-round living from the game, 10 of the team’s 12 members have played for European club teams.
More than that, since that run of gold began in 1996, the women’s roster has been more stable than the men’s. The women have never failed to return at least five players from the previous Olympic cycle; in Rio they are fielding nine holdovers from London, while the U.S. men return only two. Auriemma is a big part of the women’s consistency. Since he took over as coach before the 2012 Games, seven Huskies have made the Olympic team, bringing an understanding of his expectations and system. In Rio the team featured five former UConn players, four of whom started.
The women’s Olympic streak can be traced to what national team director Carol Callan calls “a perfect storm” two decades ago: UConn’s undefeated 1995 season, the ’96 Olympic team’s 52-game pre-Atlanta barnstorming tour, the gold medal in ’96 and, the following spring, the launch of the WNBA. With marketing in mind the league signed a nucleus of women to special services contracts, guaranteeing them stipends if they agreed to play for USA Basketball too. In 2004 the national team navigated its first major transition, with two iconic ’96ers (Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes) playing in their final Olympics and the three old heads of the current team (Bird, Catchings and Taurasi) making their debuts. Callan likens the challenge of continuity to the final scene of the 1967 movie To Sir With Love, where Sidney Poitier, having turned his class of students around, greets a new crop the following fall. “I know we win by a lot,” Callan says, “but that happens because we’re vigilant and respectful.”
Can the U.S. sustain its run after Rio? Two international developments lengthen the odds. One is the ongoing effect of the 2008 worldwide economic meltdown, which destroyed much of the wealth of European club owners, whose teams are largely vanity projects, thus making gigs overseas less appealing to U.S. players. The other factor is the murder of Russian minigarch Shabtai Kalmanovich, who paid Bird, Catchings, Taurasi and another Olympian, Sylvia Fowles, handsomely to play for his club, Spartak Moscow Region, until a hit man pumped bullets into him as he sat in his Mercedes at a red light one fall day in 2009. Until that moment USA Basketball had benefited from offshore player development for which it never paid a cent.
Other circumstances threaten U.S. dominance too. As impressive as frontline first-timers Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart have been in Rio, the U.S. has few elite guards in the pipeline. Half the current team is 30 or older. And last year the U.S. collected only a bronze medal at the FIBA Americas Under 16 championship, losing to Brazil in the semifinals.
But this group’s moment is now. “If you like basketball, you enjoy watching good basketball,” Taurasi says, her reasoning as sound as her mechanics from beyond the arc. “And if you don’t like watching good basketball, go watch rowing.”
That move to the Olympic Park, where the men play and the women will face France tomorrow, figures to make for more comparisons. But if comparisons are inevitable, forward Angel McCoughtry has a suggestion: “Nothing against the guys, but put us on the Wheaties box. Recognize us for our hard work too.”