There’s no better place to brandish soft power than the Olympics. An ascendant Hitler tried, and failed, to espouse Aryan physical superiority during the Berlin games in 1936; the Spaniards showed the world they could shake off the weighty legacy of Franco in Barcelona in 1992; and China spent $40 billion to announce their arrival as a world power in the Beijing Games four years ago. (The Opening Ceremonies present the most straightforward conduit of geopolitical influence, especially recently, since they belong solely to the host country and are malleable enough to address timely topics. My favorite example: the 2,008 drummers in perfect synchronization during the 2008 Beijing Olympics which seemed to say through a very thin veil: “we’re rich, we’re organized, and there’s a lot of us.”) Once the games open, though, it’s a chance for every country to compete for social currency as if those gold medals were worth their weight in geopolitical clout.
While fencing or boxing might be a better direct metaphor for international conflict, the interest in those sports is tepid at best in the international market. Swimming, athletics, and gymnastics are moneymakers and draw huge crowds but success, outside of a few team or relay events, is solipsistic, based on the trials of an individual rather than the chemistry and volatility of one team versus another. Soccer, of course, makes the most sense but with international squads composed of 23-and-unders plus three overage veterans the competition is muted, though don’t tell the Brazilians that. I won’t even address field hockey. Plus, since we’re discussing sports form an urban perspective there’s really only one competition that makes sense: basketball.
For people who don’t follow international basketball, it’s best to think about the level of competition in international basketball as two upward sloping lines separated by a significant gulf—the Americans on top and everyone else lagging far behind. We’re good for a lot of different reasons, not least of which is the intricate development system we have for amateur athletes including the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), a pervasive and powerful collection of amateur all-star teams that have consistently produced college and NBA stars. (The irony here of course is that the AAU circuit that most prospects enter resembles a market-based mirror image of the former Soviet Union sport academy system that China currently employs. Apparently it yields more in gymnastics and diving than in basketball.)
Basketball is also a city game; you just need a ball, a patch of concrete and something that provides a reasonable facsimile of a hoop. (Soccer, for its part, is so overwhelmingly popular globally because it can be played anywhere with anything which is why the talent pool for high-level competition is so amazingly wide and deep; basketball’s urban limitation means it’s just the latter with the odd rural exception like Jerry West and Larry Bird. Baseball and American football are probably on the other end of that grid. Maybe dressage.) The migration of Americans (especially the South-North diaspora of African American communities) in the 20th century towards urban centers ensured that the concentration of exposure and competition would become an iterative phenomenon; every generation would be better than the last (with diminishing returns, of course) because competition would improve as the sport becomes more entrenched in urban culture.
The rapid urbanization of former Soviet satellites, especially Lithuania and Serbia, as well as new basketball powerhouses like Argentina and Spain is important to their development of hardwood talent for divergent reasons. Lithuania, currently ranked 5th in the world basketball rankings, and Serbia, ranked 8th, were both feeder satellites until the breakup of the USSR, a system that sprung at least an institutional if not cultural interest in basketball. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed more than a dozen countries to field independent teams for the first time in decades during the 1992 Barcelona Games. (The Lithuanian side, understandable bereft of an Olympic organizing committee because, well, they were a two year old country at that point, was famously supplied and sponsored by the Grateful Dead, who gave them tie-dye warm up kits adorned with dunking dancing bears so that they looked like an especially athletic contingent of deadheads and played their way to the bronze medal game where they grinded out a cathartic victory against their former Soviet overlords.)
Spain’s genesis as a basketball powerhouse can be directly linked to the original Dream Team—three of the best Spanish players to ever lace them up are from Barcelona: Pau and Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio, as is the current starting guard for the national team, Juan Carlos Navarro. Other competitive national teams like Argentina, Greece, Turkey, and Italy (3rd, 4th, 6th, and 7th in the FIBA rankings, respectively) have all seen positive trending urbanization rates in the last four decades, with at least 60% of people living in cities in every nation listed. When you look at countries that have seen their basketball stock rise in the past two decades (for this experiment we’ll be considering international competition in the post-Dream Team era only) they have three factors in common:
The development of youth basketball in the States is pretty linear: AAU/High School to the NCAA to the NBA. Competition gets heavier and more concentrated as you move up the line but the jumps are known quantities for the most part. In Europe and South America development takes binary cues from soccer where if you’re good enough you’ll be recruited to an academy (akin to a minor league system) and eventually work your way up to the associated professional club which is how you have prodigies like Ricky Rubio who have been playing professionally since the age of 16. The former Soviet countries had a little bit of a head start on Western Europe and South American powers when it comes to development infrastructure since basketball academies had the unlimited resources, financial and otherwise, of the USSR behind them. The wild popularity of basketball in non-Soviet spheres after the elegant dominance of the Dream Team meant that youth academies were becoming a more popular destination for athletic kids who became, slowly, attracted to the asphalt instead of the pitch.
Shabazz Muhammad, the top ranked high school recruit this year, is a prime example of how excellent the training infrastructure is in the USA.
We talked about this above but the importance of the global urban shift can’t be understated—even though there are some important caveats to consider such as the perceived feebleness of teams from countries with huge urban populations like China, Japan, and Mexico. In a brutal reality that I realized somewhere in my early teens, basketball is a game for tall and graceful men and being one or the other is almost never enough. When you look at the rosters for Japan (34th in the FIBA rankings), and Mexico (30th) their average height is a full two inches shorter than the Americans, and three inches shorter than the Spanish roster. That may not sound like much but when you combine the level of competition faced by those two powerhouses and the relatively marginal brand faced by Mexico and Japan, two inches might as well be a full foot. China presents a different study: they’re ranked 10th in the FIBA rankings but are miles behind the top five teams in terms of talent level even given their rapid urbanization and towering average height of 6’8” (and absolute absorption in professional basketball, the Chinese Basketball Association makes up for their lack of top tier competition with fervently dedicated fans; stories about Chinese NBA enthusiasts staying up at all hours of the night to watch a playoff game abound).
Their middling performance in this year’s Olympics actually bears out the last factor that affects a national team’s performance on the parquet: latency.
Children aren’t very good at basketball. The hoop is 10 feet tall when you’re 6 years old just like it is when you’re 30 and if you’ve ever seen a 2nd grader trying to shoot a jump shot it takes every ounce of strength in his or her body just to get it above the rim. I’m pretty sure I could beat any given 7 year old every day of the week. I’ve also had my ass handed to me by stringy 15 year olds who have first steps like they were simply born to blow past people. The point of course is that it takes time to become good at basketball and for an entire nation to jump from, say, 9th place in the 1992 Olympics to Beijing silver medalist in 16 years as Spain did. Lithuania and Serbia didn’t have to wait for their national team to compete as the initial latency period for their basketball generations already happened in, like, the 50s when the Supreme Soviet took 6 year olds and had them play basketball twelve hours a day. Spain’s status as non-American favorite 20 years after the Barcelona Games with a roster filled with excellent players in their late twenties and early thirties is no coincidence, it simply took that long for basketball obsessed kids to become fantastically talented adults. China, a country that has all the requisite ingredients to match or surpass a team like Spain, seems to be only a few years away from the end of their initial waiting period.